Photo Credit: AP Images
Giving a speech before your high school class is hard enough, but can you imagine speaking when the first lady of the United States is on hand?
That's the situation 18-year-old Brannon Niblock recently found herself in. “It’s pretty surreal and, I mean, I am speechless,” the valedictorian of Quantico Middle/High School in Quantico, Va., a school for United States Marine Corps families, tells me the day before her big speech.
Michelle Obama, one of the hottest tickets on the commencement circuit, chose Brannon’s school, whose class has only 27 graduating seniors, as one of the few places she’d visit to salute graduating students this year.
“Graduates, you all are an inspiration,” Mrs. Obama said in her speech this past Friday evening. “You all are role models, not just for other military kids, but for all kids, for all adults, for all Americans who want to see what patriotism and sacrifice and service to country really look like.”
“She could have gone to a larger school and had a larger audience, “ says Brannon’s mother, Debbie Niblock. “I think it makes our kids feel really special and important and the focus has been placed on them.”
And perhaps the first lady’s visit helps all of us understand a tiny bit more about the sacrifices military families like the Niblocks make every day -- like birthday celebrations with the whole family, something most of us take for granted. Talking about her Marine Corps dad, Brannon says, “When we were younger, I don’t remember a birthday when he was there.”
Brannon, who plans to follow in her father's footsteps and enter the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in the fall, has been in eight different schools from kindergarten through high school, and even had to change schools right before her senior year. “It’s really hard, especially getting adjusted to the school,” she says. “Look at my grades for the first semester; they drop. You just have to pick back up and that’s all I’ve ever known.”
Emily Mitchell, Quantico’s salutatorian, says she was hoping the first lady’s visit would send a message to children at schools across the country to be more welcoming and helpful to kids from military families. “At public school, where kids have lived there from pre-school all the way until college, they don’t understand and they don’t have the general welcoming that all the [Department of Defense] schools have,” says the 18-year-old senior. “They’re used to a new kid if they’re from a school that’s like 10 miles away, not a military kid that came from Japan or overseas in Germany.”
To the graduating class, Mrs. Obama said, “You all have moved an average of more than six times each, and one of you has moved 18 times. It is the fourth time Emily has lived at Quantico and each time she’s been with an entirely new group of kids. So when it comes to leaving behind everything you know and starting over again, you’ve all been there and done that.”
Emily, who will attend Louisiana State University in September and hopes to work with children with disabilities, says being in a military family is a lot harder as you get older. “When we were younger, they would always say, ‘Dad’s going to be safe, he’ll be in the safest area,” she tells me. “But [as you get] older, your innocence is leaving, you know he’s not always 100 percent safe.” Her dad spent time in combat zones, including in Afghanistan last year.
Emily’s mom, Paige Mitchell, says the most challenging aspect of being a military wife is being a military mom. “The first time I did a deployment during peacetime was the toughest time -- you have to be mom and dad,” she says. “You are worried about the psyche of your children.”
Mitchell says Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of the military but says people might not know exactly what’s involved. “I think where there may be somewhat of a little bit of disconnect is that when you don’t live a certain life, of course, you don’t know all that goes into it,” she said, adding that her own mother, even after 20 years of her husband serving in the Marine Corps, doesn’t completely understand.
Maybe after more visits like the first lady’s to places like Quantico Middle/High School, more of us will start to get it.