By Sarah Vogelsong, The Progress-Index
FORT LEE — For the first time in the post’s nearly 100-year history, a sitting president visited Fort Lee, creating an unexpected midweek stir at the usually sedate Prince George installation.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama traveled via Air Force One and helicopter to Fort Lee for a two-pronged visit that included a town hall hosted by CNN and a meet-and-greet with service people and Tri-Cities notables.
“This is also a chance for me to pay tribute to the vital work that you’re doing every single day,” Obama told the crowd of more than 500 troops and civilians who crowded into the U.S. Air Force Transportation School High Bay hangar Wednesday. “You don’t always get the glory, but the fact is, America’s Army and America’s military could not project around the world, would not be the very best in the world if it were not for the best sustainment personnel in the world.”
Obama gave particular praise to the different parts of Fort Lee’s logistical portfolio. “We salute all the logistics personnel. You make sure our troops get what they need — the right amount to the right place at the right time,” Obama said. “We salute the Transportation Corps. Keeping our supply lines open and, at times, risking your lives doing it. We salute the folks who handle the ordnance. A line of work where you truly need steady hands — don’t drop nothing. We salute all the quartermasters.”
For many of those in attendance, Obama’s recognition shed some rare light on the behind-the-scenes work of military operations that often goes unnoticed by the public but is at the heart of Fort Lee’s mission. Home to the Combined Arms Support Command, the Army Logistics University, the U.S. Army Ordnance School, the U.S. Army Quartermaster School and the U.S. Army Transportation School, the installation today contains some 28,000 soldiers involved in the critical support and supply tasks that enable men at the front lines of conflict to fight.
“The motto we always go by is, ‘Without fuel, you can’t move,’” said Staff Sgt. Mitchell Ledet of the 262nd Quartermaster Battalion, who has served in the Army 14 years and at Fort Lee almost three years. “It honestly felt good to get noticed today.”
Sgt. Maj. Anthony Brown expressed similar sentiments: “For him to come here and recognize what the sustainment community has done is simply unbelievable.”
For some two hours, soldiers streamed into the hangar and stood in wait for the president as brief rainstorms swept over the post. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, with many of the troops and their families snapping selfies against the backdrop of an enormous American flag as patriotic Sousa marches and Springsteen anthems blared in the background.
When personnel closed the hangar doors just after 4 p.m., emotions ratcheted up even further, and a wave of cell phones rose above the crowd in preparation for Obama’s entrance.
Obama, said Army Col. Brian McCullough after the visit, “is the first selfie president. Every president after this will have to suffer the same fate.”
Although most of Obama’s remarks were devoted to thanking the troops for their service, the president also offered a pledge to support the men and women of the armed forces, describing the commitment as “a sacred covenant.”
“There’s no more solemn request than to ask somebody to risk their lives on your behalf,” he said. In return, he added, “the rest of us need to fulfill our oath to take care of you and your families.”
“Of all of the privileges of this office, there’s been no greater privilege, no greater honor than serving as the Commander-in-Chief of the finest military in the history of the world,” he said.
The speech was warmly received by those in attendance, with many who had the chance to shake the president’s hand appearing somewhat dazed afterward.
“I’m not going to wash my hand,” Ledet said. And an employee of Kenner Army Health Clinic declared, “It was worth standing up here for two hours in the heat.”
Staff Sgt. Louinique Pierre, a Florida native who has served 13 years with the military, called the experience “surreal,” saying, “I never thought in a million years I’d actually get to see him face to face, let alone shake his hand.”
The president, Pierre remarked, “has a good, authoritative handshake.”
Ledet too called the experience “a once in a lifetime thing” and said that it had evoked the same emotions he had felt when he first enlisted.
For Specialist Omar Torres Vazquez of the 262nd Quartermaster Battalion, a Puerto Rico-born self-described “military brat,” the most meaningful part of meeting Obama was having the chance to thank the president for his accomplishments related to the Latino and LGBT communities.
It was during Obama’s two terms, said Torres Vazquez, that he began to understand the relevance of political issues to his own life.
“Even so, with all the progression, there’s still so much more (to do),” he said. “Hopefully we can keep moving forward.”