Michelle Obama raised eyebrows when she promised during a recent address to troops in Qatar that she would “look out” for veterans and their families not just for the remainder of her time in the White House, but “for the rest of my life.”
Mrs. Obama made the promise during her visit to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where she was flanked by comedian Conan O’Brien and Col. Nicole “FiFi” Malachowski, a former Thunderbird pilot who now serves as Director of Joining Forces, a White House-sponsored public-private partnership focused on veteran and family matters. The First Lady reportedly credited Malachowski’s leadership of the division during her remarks.
The speech provides an interesting juxtaposition. Few doubt the sincerity of Mrs. Obama’s reassurance, but it contrasts starkly against President Obama’s policy record. During his time in office, operational tempo has gotten more crushing, force structure and manpower have withered, compensation and benefits have been constantly under attack, and morale in the military services has plummeted. What servicemembers and families need — more than a well-meaning but well-worn promise — is a mission-resource re-calibration to make military life sustainable again.
The choice of Al Udeid as a venue for the speech adds a layer of irony. What was once a cushy deployed location made miserable by self-inflicted command policies is now suffering from material neglect. No one expected it would operate at such a high level of intensity for so long, hosting so many people. Without a long-term budget to sustain it, the base is starting to fall apart, and its denizens have traded one flavor of misery — boredom coupled with Mickey Mouse rules — for the more ordinary flavor that arises from leaks, mold, shortages, filth, and disrepair.
Roughly the inverse has been true for the US military as an enterprise. The privations of the previous decade were understood as necessary to beat back a determined enemy and safeguard the homeland. The attendant misery was beyond anyone’s control. Today, it feels more self-inflicted … an elective choice by policy leaders to conduct an overbroad and ambiguous defense strategy on an unsustainable manpower model.
The one constant in all of this is misery. It’s not clear that the saccharine assurances of Mrs. Obama, no matter how authentic, can do much to ameliorate it. But her visit provided, for some, an appreciated respite from the normal routine of counting away the days while being intermittently haggled over tiny behavioral non-conformances.
Oh yeah, there is one other constant of post-9/11 life, at least for the Air Force: the patently wasteful fielding of a legion of musicians to perform a rolling bubble gum commercial on infinite loop for the scant few who appreciate noisy distractions over the ordinary ennui of deployment. The AFCENT band, which is housed at Al Udeid, is part of that legion, and enjoyed an opportunity to “warm up” the crowd before Mrs. Obama took to the podium.
Here they are in mid-jam:
Overall, the visit seemed successful, with many denizens grumbling offline about facility closures and disruptions while others welcomed the chance to hear from the First Lady directly. Nearly all applauded the chance to see Conan perform.
It’s a common rhetorical feature for leaders like the First Lady to stress the importance of strong communication — for veterans and families to let her know how she and others can help. One airman told me offline that he didn’t have the chance to give her the message directly, but would have responded to “how can we help” with three simple words: “close Al Udeid.”
Hard to imagine a more valid or poignant piece of advice.
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