PITTSBURGH – First lady Michelle Obama visited with military families Tuesday at an Air Force unit based outside Pittsburgh that's slated to be closed next year, saying she understood their concerns about the planned closure but providing no definitive answers about the unit's future.
She didn't make any formal remarks during her brief stop at the 911th Airlift Wing on Tuesday afternoon on her way to attend fundraisers in Pittsburgh, and she didn't take questions from reporters, but she couldn't avoid the local controversy.
One mother dressed her 2-year-old daughter in a red T-shirt that read "Save the 911th" and another put tiny buttons with a similar slogan on an infant's knit cap.
Senior Airman Tasha Gresco, 31, said she raised the closure issue with Obama.
"She said that they're praying for us, hoping that the base can stay open," Gresco said.
The Air Force says the seven C-130 refueling planes at the 911th are among the oldest in the fleet, and that the cuts there and at other units around the nation are necessary to comply with the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request.
Obama spent only about 20 minutes with the servicemen and women, but November's presidential election was in the air, too.
Some demonstrators gathered near the base entrance before the event, holding handwritten signs that included "Mr. President/No 911th?/No Vote!!" and "President Obama Please Don't Fire My Mom."
The Air Force announced in February that it plans to shut the Airlift Wing next year, eliminating 1,451 positions. That's led to protests in the surrounding community and efforts by members of Congress to stop the closure.
"The timing here is very interesting. Believe me, my phone rang off the hook" on Monday, said retired Air Force Col. Jerry Kintigh, who chairs the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Job Retention and Military Presence. Kintigh and the coalition have been active in opposing past efforts to close the base, notably in 2005.
Kintigh said the visit and how people interpret it will be a topic for the rest of the election season in western Pennsylvania.
"This might be the master stroke of the White House to get votes in western Pennsylvania," he said.
A number of military members or their spouses who attended the event said the first lady expressed sympathy for them.
Master Sgt. Mark Winklosky, a spokesman for the 911th, said people there are "just continuing with day-to-day operations" and hoping members of Congress can save the base.
But one airman noted that the Air Force will have to make some tough decisions next year, when military budgets are expected to be cut.
"Sometimes things have to be done," said Tech Sgt. Timothy Tyler.
Lawmakers and local officials say the base pumps about $114 million into the Pittsburgh region's economy each year.