The speaker was larger than his message for many who attended President Barack Obama’s appearance Friday on Fort Stewart.
“Oh my god! This is a pleasure, I’m ecstatic. They’re going to have to drag us off the field,” Helena Randall, who works in the Tuttle Army Dental Clinic, said. “I saw my Barack. I saw my president.”
Friends surrounding Randall echoed her sentiments – though one said she was not so excited about waiting in the heat.
“Don’t say that,” Randall cut in. “This is beautiful weather for a beautiful occasion.”
Randall was one of an estimated 10,000 who packed Fort Stewart’s Marne Garden to see the president and First Lady Michelle Obama speak. The crowd bellowed with “hooahs” and applause as the first couple took the stage.
Hinesville resident and 30-year civil servant Jeannie Allen said she was excited to see the first black president and is honored that he chose to visit the area.
“If I had known, I’d have cooked him a dinner,” she said. “This is history for Hinesville.”
Allen’s menu for the president would have included fried chicken, collard greens, string beans, pinto beans, peach cobbler and red velvet cake.
“He missed it,” she added. “I might have even thrown some chitlins in there.”
Master Sgt. Alvin Davis laughed as Allen spoke about her proposed menu.
“I think this is a great event for all soldiers and their family members to attend, and it should be something that’s good for the community,” Davis said.
Though the event was aimed at service members, spouses and veterans, civilian dignitaries including Liberty County Commission Chairman John McIver, Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, Hinesville Mayor Pro-Tem Charles Frasier, Flemington Mayor Sandra Martin and Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) also attended.
McIver was among a group of dignitaries who met with the president in the headquarters building before the speech.
“I think this has been a trip that is overdue,” McIver said. “I’m thrilled that he took the initiative to take this visit to Fort Stewart and Liberty County. The troops deserve his presence, and I think his presence here will let the troops know how much her supports them, and all of the deployments that have taken place through the years.”
Several veteran organizations also were invited into the VIP area.
Disabled American Veterans Chapter 46 received about 60 tickets initially, but was able to issue 79 tickets, according to Commander Walter Helmick.
“How should I put this? Our phones have not stopped ringing for tickets,” Helmick said. “It’s a great honor to be selected as a representative for the organizations, and to be here and listen to what the president has to say to all of us, the soldiers, the veterans and even the public people in the community.”
He added that it is especially exciting to see the first lady, because she does not frequently appear with the president.
Three First Presbyterian Christian Academy students scored tickets through their technology teacher, Maria Reed. She put them to work documenting the event with cameras and interviewing other attendees.
FPCA freshman Abigail Jones, whose father is active duty Army, said she got to meet the president and first lady, and the students even received autographs on White House stationery.
“It felt really good, because I felt like I am part of history — watching him sign the law and everything,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘He looks like on TV, he looks just like it — and I like Michelle’s shoes.’”
Not everyone spoke in support of the president’s visit, however.
Several soldiers and spouses declined comment, some saying they were not comfortable giving their honest thoughts. But others were much more candid on social networks.
“I thought it was too much hype and freaking out for a 10-minute speech. Sorry Mr. Prez, still not voting for you, dude,” one poster wrote on the Army Wives of Fort Stewart Facebook page.
A poster on the Coastal Courier Facebook page wrote: “I have been in the government for 33 years. Obama has done nothing in his presidential term that has not benefited him. He could care less about you, me or our military, wake up, it’s election year.”
There were also negative reactions on the national level. Anthony Principi, former secretary of Veterans Affairs and co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s Veterans Policy Advisory Group issued a statement on Friday.
“We need a president who not only understands that we must provide our veterans with the world-class health care and benefits they deserve, but that an equally critical task is getting the American economy growing again,” Principi said.
After the event, Georgia Army Reserve Ambassador Luis Carreras said he got to shake the president’s hand.
“It was amazing. The event was amazing … It’s for a good purpose, you can say politics or whatever else, but to do it here with the troops was very important,” Carreras said. “All politics aside, he’s the commander-in-chief.”