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Michelle Obama to honor veterans, families at Pa. military base slated for closure in 2013
PITTSBURGH (AP) ' An Air Force base outside Pittsburgh that's slated to close next year is the backdrop for first lady Michelle Obama to recognize veterans and military families in a speech scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
The leader of a coalition that is among opponents of the planned closure said the timing of the event has many people in the community wondering whether the first lady will weigh in on the matter.
The Obama administration announced in February that it plans to shut the 911th Airlift Wing in 2013, eliminating 1,451 positions. That's led to protests in the surrounding community and efforts by members of Congress to stop the closure.
The Air Force says it wants to close the base because the seven C-130 refueling planes there are among the oldest in the fleet.
"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 has raised some people's expectations, even if that wasn't the plan.
"I had a lot of people ask me, is she going to make an announcement" about plans to close the base, he said. "They called me and said, colonel, what does this mean? And the answer is, damned if I know."
Kintigh said the first lady's visit is a "very, very surprising move on the part of the United States Air Force" given that the one thing on everyone's mind is the plan to close the base.
Whatever she says ' or doesn't say ' about the closing during the visit will be a topic for the rest of the election season in western Pennsylvania, he said.
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a question about whether the first lady plans to address the base closing issue.
Master Sgt. Mark Winklosky, a spokesman for the 911th, said he just heard about the visit on Saturday.
The first lady is scheduled to honor airmen who've made repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Later in the day, she'll attend fundraisers in Pittsburgh.
Lawmakers and local officials say the base pumps about $114 million into the Pittsburgh region's economy each year.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said last month that the cuts to the 911th and other bases around the nation were necessary to comply with the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request.