Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My visit with Michelle Obama

Janell Kellett is the lead volunteer for the Wisconsin National Guard Family Readiness Group. The photo at left show Janell in Washington, D.C. The photo below shows her in the White House Theater, where the reception was prior to the State of the Union address. Janell's husband, Mike, stayed there while she went to the Capital. She agreed to share the behind-the-scenes story of her very special trip.

I was invited by the First Lady and Dr. Biden to be their guest at the State of the Union Address in January 2010. I represented military families and the importance of volunteerism. Below is a detailed account of how this all came about.

January 12, 2010 – My very good friend and fellow military spouse, Jen Van Kirk, called me to let me know that she nominated me to be a guest of the First Lady at the State of the Union Address (SOTU.) Jen said she called me after the packet was submitted so that I wouldn’t talk her out of it. I thanked her for thinking of me and for the kind words she wrote in the nomination packet. Of course, I felt like I had little chance (basically no chance in hell) of actually being chosen to sit with Mrs. Obama. However, I was very grateful to Jen as she took the time to complete the packet and thought that what I had been doing over the past several years was worthy of such a great honor. My packet was forwarded to National Guard Bureau for consideration.
January 13, 2010 – I received an email that stated that National Guard Bureau forwarded my packet on and they said it was the only packet they forwarded for consideration. I was absolutely shocked. Again, what a great honor that National Guard Bureau would forward on the packet. I told my husband when he called me from Maine as he was on his way home from Iraq. He was very proud and thrilled. When I saw him at Volk Field I told him that I am not sharing this nomination information at this time because we don’t know anything yet. He informed me that he already told everyone he saw from the moment I told him in Maine until he saw me. It was wonderful that he was so happy, but I was trying to keep it quiet as I was confident that I would not be chosen.
January 18, 2010 – I picked my husband up at Volk Field, watched the last plane of our Soldiers come in and headed home. The kids and I were so glad to have him home. I was tired. Leading the FRG was a wonderful opportunity to serve and I was very proud of everything we had done, but I was just exhausted. It was such a relief to have my husband home and not have that constant worry in the back of my mind.
January 20, 2010 – I was sitting at my computer doing FRG work when the phone rang. It was Trooper Stanton calling from the White House. I turned around to see my husband hovering behind me and pointed at the phone mouthing “White House.” He chuckled and said he could hear and then stood there wide-eyed waiting to hear what was happening. Mr. Stanton then extended the invitation, to which I had no response, until I realized he was waiting for me to say something. A non-committal, “Wow” came out. He laughed and talked a bit longer until I realized that I had not accepted the invitation. So, I gratefully accepted the invitation. My husband was standing behind me whispering, “Do I get to go too?” Mr. Stanton informed me that I would be allowed to bring a guest so I turned and nodded to my husband. After we got off the phone I was just shocked for a minute or two and then I jumped up and down for a while. I even had to put the dog outside as he was getting all riled up so I could jump up and down some more. My husband did not jump up and down, because Infantryman do not do that kind of thing, but he did hug me. I then got on the phone to make some important calls as we had to inform the Wisconsin National Guard of course. I then called Jen Van Kirk to tell her the news. She jumped up and down in her law office while I jumped up and down in the house. I thanked her again since had she had not written the nomination this amazing opportunity wouldn’t have come to be. I set up child care for the kids and called a couple people and then I found out via email that I was not supposed to share the information until the White House releases the guest list…oops. So, I did my best to keep a lid on it from that point on.
January 21, 2010 – The “What do I wear?” panic set in. This is the first question that everyone asked when they found out I was going to the SOTU. I went to White House Black Market in Middleton and found a great suit. I ordered a beautiful pair of Stuart Weitzman heels off the internet, because a woman can really do anything if she has great shoes…it is a fact. I then felt a lot better. The next few days were a blur of shopping, calls from National Guard Bureau, calls from the Pentagon, calls from the White House etc. Just a crazy few days of strangeness. Packing was an issue as my husband could not understand why we would have to check bags when we were going to be in D.C. for less than 48 hours. A girl needs back up clothes in the event of a clothing emergency was my response. He accepted it and moved on.
January 22, 2010 – I mistakenly thought that I was one of several military spouses chosen to be the guests of the First Lady and Dr. Biden. I found out via email that I was representing all military spouses. I was again shocked, which is really a recurring theme for the next week. I was chosen because of the several years I have volunteered for the Wisconsin Army National Guard and because of the community service work that I have done.
January 26, 2010 – We leave for Washington D.C. – The phone started ringing at 7:30 AM until… basically for two days. Senator Kohl’s office called to set up a meeting for Wednesday and the local papers/television stations wanted information of course. I did phone interviews in the Madison, O’Hare and Reagan airports. My husband and I went to our hotel and walked to Old Ebbitt’s Grill a wonderful restaurant and bar in D.C. We had a lovely time just the two of us as it was our first alone (without the kids) time since he got home. My husband went from being in Baghdad to the White House within two weeks. Isn’t that incredible! Most of our dinner conversation consisted of me saying, “Can you believe this?”
January 27, 2010 – Mike and I start out the day by going to Senator Kohl’s office. He has staff that was absolutely wonderful to us and he was a very gracious host. We then went to the National Mall and walked around for a little bit. Again, I was conducting a lot of phone interviews and had to do an in studio interview so we didn’t have a lot of time. I really wanted to spread the message about volunteerism and how important it is to volunteer in the community so I did my best to get the word out while I had the chance.
SOTU – At 6:15 PM a car picked us up at our hotel and took us to the White House. I was impressed with the security precautions taken to ensure our safety and the safety of others throughout the whole night. We were taken to the East Sitting Room until they were ready for us. It was in this room that I met Kim Munley and Mark Todd the two officers that stopped the Ft. Hood massacre. It was a great opportunity to thank them for everything they had to do to protect our Servicemembers. This room has some beautiful portraits of former First Ladies in it. We were then escorted to the Theater down the hall. They had set up hors d'oeuvres and beverages for us. White House staff visited with us and I met the other amazing guests that were each representing a different segment of our population. Excited doesn’t begin to explain the feeling during the night. I was absolutely thrilled to be a part of it and very proud to have been asked. I thought of other military spouses and volunteers while I was there and did my best to make them proud. After about 45 minutes or so we all were asked to sit in the theater and Mrs. Obama came down and made a brief speech. She welcomed us all and pointed out that each of us was asked to be there for a special reason and how grateful she was we could attend. She had to leave and join the President to go over to the Capitol. She was absolutely lovely and gracious. This is when I parted with my husband. He stayed at the White House to watch the SOTU on the screen there while the 23 guests of the First Lady went to the Capitol for the speech. We were taken to the Capitol and escorted upstairs to the box.
We were in our seats by 8:15 PM so there was plenty of time to visit and look around. It was absolutely amazing. To see the President, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs and our government officials all in the same room was just incredible. Everything about the experience was incredible. I simply still can’t believe that I was there. After the speech was over, the guests were escorted downstairs to stand in line and meet the President and First Lady. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous, very nervous actually. Up until this point I was just very excited, but the nerves kicked in at this point. I gave the President and First Lady a Red Arrow lapel pin. The Red Arrow is the symbol for the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. We talked for a minute or two and I thanked them for this amazing opportunity. The photographer took our picture and I was off. We went back to the White House to pick up my husband and then back to the hotel. Mike and I then changed and went out for the night. I was too excited to even consider sleeping and didn’t really go to sleep until about 4 AM. I checked my email and Facebook page before I went to bed and I had received many emails from my wonderful family and friends about the experience. It was really very exciting to see how much enjoyment others got from this as well so that was really an added benefit to the entire experience.
January 28, 2010 – Mike and I went to see Senator Feingold. Senator Feingold and his staff were very gracious to us as well. It was very kind of them to invite us to the office. Secretary Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, invited us to his office for a luncheon along with the other veterans that attended the SOTU. He, his Chief of Staff, his Undersecretary and staff were absolutely great. It was a great honor to be their guests. Secretary Shinseki talked about the importance of Family Readiness Groups and he really understands the importance of the FRG and the support of military families for our Servicemembers. Secretary Shinseki is a retired general and former Chief of Staff for the Army. It was a great honor to speak with him. He gave us his coin and a very nice lapel pin as did his Chief of Staff, John Gingrich. They were all wonderful hosts and we very much appreciated the invitation.
Since we got home, Mike and I have shared our Washington D.C. trip details with great excitement. My husband jokes that he was just “and Guest” to the White House. However, everything we do is a team effort and if it weren’t for his service we would not have been invited on the amazing journey. I am very grateful for all the cards, emails and calls of congratulations. It really means a lot to us.
March 6, 2010 – Every year in March the Kellett family has our Diamond Lil Christmas Party. Diamond Lil was my grandmother and although she has passed away we still continue the family tradition. The party was dedicated to my husband and I for our service. I had a great time showing off my White House memorabilia, which includes a signed picture from Senator Kohl, a thank you note from Mrs. Obama and a White House cocktail napkin. It was a wonderful party.
March 15, 2010 – After many trips to the mailbox, the picture is finally here. I was at the front window of my house talking to a military spouse when I saw the mailman. He put a large manila envelope in my box that looked a lot like a few others that have come from Washington D.C.. I told my friend to hang on while I ran out to the mailbox like I was being chased by someone really scary. It was in fact the picture of myself along with President and First Lady. How fantastic. I look at the picture and still find it hard to believe that I was chosen to represent our military spouses and volunteers in such an amazing way. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity.

There's more: On April 16th , 2010 the volunteers from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team will receive an award at the Pentagon for outstanding Family Readiness.

Meet Janell Kellett

A World Away is shifting gears, and opening its doors to all Wisconsin military families. If you have a story to tell, contact Steve at

Today, meet Janell Kellett:

I am Janell Kellett and I am the full-time Family Readiness Group (FRG) volunteer for the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. I say “full-time” because volunteering becomes a full time job when your unit is preparing to deploy and does deploy. The primary function of the FRG is to pass on important information from the military to the families of our Soldiers. We do this via email, newsletter and by having a phone tree set up to contact families with important information. We also set up social events for families so they get an opportunity to make friends with other parents, siblings, spouses and friends of Soldiers.
I have the pleasure of working with the most amazing volunteers. I am so proud of them and of what they have accomplished over the years. I was a lead volunteer in the FRG during both of my husband’s deployments. His first deployment was from August 2005 – November 2006. His second deployment was with Headquarters Company of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team from February 2009 until January 2010. Throughout this deployment the 32nd Brigade FRG leadership decided that we wanted to focus the families on community service to show our appreciation to the community and help keep them focused on something positive throughout the deployment. We set up community service events for the families and partnered with other service organizations in the community to show our support to our community.
Our individual groups of families did a variety of things to support the community. For example, one group conducted a community wide clothing drive for our homeless Veterans, another group of families conducted a coat drive for children in need, a group of military families along with the Boy Scouts and other groups conducted a carnival with the proceeds donated to the local elementary school. These are just a few examples of the great things our military families have accomplished in 2009 to support their community.
A few things that I organized in 2009 were a team for the Race for the Cure, a diaper/wipes drive for a local food pantry in Madison, I organized a group of military families to man a watering station for the Madison Mini-Marathon, I set up a food drives for Second Harvest and another local food pantry. I also organized Servicemembers and families to ring bells for the Salvation Army in December. I have been a military spouse for 12 years and have been active in the FRG since we got married.