By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 5, 2012 - President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a "solemn tribute" to Iraq war veterans -- including those who made the ultimate sacrifice -- with a dinner last week at the White House. Among the star-studded generals and troops in formal uniforms was Kim Felts, the only Gold Star wife at the event.
Seated at a table next to the first lady and surrounded by Iraq war veterans and their wives, Kim said she felt humbled and grateful. "I felt like [our nation's leaders] were saying, 'We want to honor your husband in this way,'" she said in an interview Friday.
Kim's husband, Army Col. Thomas H. Felts Sr., was killed Nov. 14, 2006, in Baghdad when an explosive detonated near his vehicle. He was 45 years old.
The dinner, held Feb. 29, included about 80 war veterans and their wives and senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. They were there in honor of the more than 1 million U.S. service members who served in Iraq from 2003 to the end of operations in December.
Kim, a Special Forces Command family readiness program specialist at Fort Bragg, N.C, brought her two younger children, Rebekah and Thomas Jr., to the event. The teens were nervous and excited, she said, as they pulled up to the White House that evening.
As people mingled, Kim and her children meandered through several rooms of the White House, fascinated by portraits of past presidents and other elites. Her daughter, a fashion buff, was on the lookout for Jackie Onassis' picture, while her son was drawn to Benjamin Franklin's portrait. They then joined a reception line to greet the president and first lady.
Kim shook the president's hand and received a big hug from the first lady, but it was her daughter who stole the thunder, she said. When the president met Rebekah, he said her dress, with its long organza train, was "spectacular." "My daughter is such a 'fashionista,'" Kim said, laughing.
The Felts family took their seats next to the first lady, who immediately put everyone at the table at ease, Kim said. They chatted for a few minutes about family resilience, she said, and Kim's work with Special Forces' Gold Star wives back home. "She expressed she cares so much for Gold Star families, and thinks about them and their sacrifice so often," she recalled.
They also discussed the first lady's Joining Forces campaign, intended to rally the nation's support for military families, and how the White House can leverage the initiative to support Gold Star families.
In his remarks, the president honored the sacrifices of all military families, including the families of the fallen.
"You taught us about sacrifice -- a love of country so deep, so profound, you're willing to give your life for it," he said. "Tonight, we pay solemn tribute to all who did."
Felts said one of the highlights of her evening was meeting Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, senior military advisor to the defense secretary, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. They had an instant connection, she said. "There's a camaraderie between survivors," she said. "Not a word needs to be said when you know someone shares the loss of a loved one."
Felts said the dinner's concept was honorable, but she'd prefer hold off on further celebrations until all deployed troops ? including her son-in-law, who is deployed in Afghanistan ? return home.
Still "I did feel the gratitude of the government and that goes a long way," she said.
For more on this tribute, visit American Forces Press Service's special report A Nation's Gratitude [ http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2012/0312_gratitude/ ].