First lady is lobbied to keep 911th Airlift Wing open

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tiny Savannah Mash didn't have to say a word to first lady Michelle Obama to get her point across on Tuesday.

Two buttons on Savannah's yellow-and-white hat spoke for her: "Save the 911th & 171st," referring to Moon military bases that are slated to close and be scaled back, respectively, under a proposed cost-cutting plan.

The Aliquippa infant was one of the first people Obama saw when she stepped off a plane at the Air Force Reserve's 911th Airlift Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The first lady -- in town to host two fundraisers for her husband's re-election campaign -- also was greeted by dozens of reservists and guardsmen on the base, and protesters outside its gates who waved signs to oppose the cuts as her caravan passed by.

Not everyone lobbied the first lady to help keep the 911th open.

"That's above my pay grade. I didn't mention it to her," said Senior Airman Domenic Mash, Savannah's father.

The Air Force announced in February that it will close the 911th by September 2013 as part of a larger government plan to cut military spending by $450 billion over five years. Operations would be scaled back at the nearby 171st.

Obama spoke first with the 911th's Operations Group Cmdr. Daryl Hartman and Mash and his family at the bottom of the jet stairs.

Mash was chosen to be among the first to greet Obama because of a personal sacrifice he made last year. Mash volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan to fill in for two airmen who were shot and killed at a German airport -- even though his wife would deliver their first child while Mash was overseas, serving in the security forces.

Mash, who received an Air Force Achievement Medal, watched his daughter's birth in August via Skype, an online video chat service. The military granted Mash an early return home and helped arrange a surprise, televised reunion with his wife and newborn at CNN's studios in Atlanta.

"Not many people can say they met their child for the first time on national television," said Mash, who concedes the decision to deploy was difficult but one he does not regret.

Among other things, it helped his daughter get an opportunity to meet the first lady. "That's definitely going in her baby book," the airman said of photos of the encounter.

Although Mash didn't mention his concerns about the proposed closure of the 911th, his wife, Katlyn, took advantage of the opportunity.

"Yeah, I mentioned it," Katlyn Mash said, noting the family moved to Aliquippa from the Johnstown area last fall because her husband started working full time on the base as a security forces patrolman. "This is hard. I told her, 'We don't want to move. None of us do.' She said she understood."

After meeting Hartman and the Mashes, Obama walked over to a group of about 20 service members from the 911th and 171st Air Refueling Wing and some of their families. All posed for photos with the first lady. One girl, Tiaira Maloni, 14, of Beaver, cried.

"It was overwhelming," said Maloni, a volunteer member of the Civil Air Patrol.

After speaking individually with members of the group for about 15 minutes, Obama got into a sport utility vehicle and left the base in a caravan headed Downtown to the first of two fundraisers. Outside the gates, dozens of service members and supporters rallied in opposition to the proposed cutbacks.

"We just want her to question why we're all out here," said Tammy Cairo of Kennedy, an administrative assistant with the Military Affairs Coalition of Western Pennsylvania.

Obama attended a $250-per-person fundraiser in the Rivers Club, Downtown, and a $10,000-per-person Women for Obama fundraiser at Cindy Shapira's home in Fox Chapel. About 200 showed up for the Rivers Club event, and 60 at Shapira's home. The money will be split among the Obama campaign, Democratic National Committee and several state Democratic groups.

Sprinkling plaudits for pancakes at Pamela's P&G Diner into her prepared remarks, Obama praised her husband's record on health care, job creation and national security. She talked about the president's support for the DREAM Act and Buffett Rule, bills on immigration and tax policy, respectively, neither of which passed.

"The thing that I remind people of every day is that in this country, change can be slow. Real change takes time. It doesn't happen all at once," Obama said in a tent in Shapira's manicured backyard. "But if we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight, then we always get there."

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