Stadium cheers, Jeter greet First Lady

NEW YORK -- First lady Michelle Obama received a warm welcome from Yankees fans and a kiss from the captain before Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.

Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, escorted Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra to the mound for the pregame ceremony honoring the nation's veterans. Earlier in the day, the two visited a Bronx veterans hospital and handed out goody bags stocked with Yankees caps and teddy bears.

Wearing a maroon World Series jacket, Mrs. Obama smiled as the crowd cheered. Mrs. Obama and Biden each got a peck from Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on their way off the field, and the first lady high-fived a fan before disappearing into a Yankee Stadium tunnel.

Mrs. Obama has been a vocal advocate for veterans and military families in the nine months since her husband became president.

"I'm happy with every minute that I spend time with our men and women in uniform and our veterans," Mrs. Obama told a crowd of veterans and hospital staff at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center, who responded with three standing ovations. "Each and every day, they selflessly and courageously serve this nation."

She called on all Americans to "take the time to be more aware of these heroes in our midst, and honor them by doing more service not just for them, but for all our communities."

But she got the biggest cheers when she acknowledged the duty of the government to guarantee veterans "the care that they were promised and the benefits that they have earned."

Mrs. Obama noted that a defense bill signed by her husband into law Wednesday "gives the family members of wounded veterans federal family leave protection so that they can care for their loved ones without losing their jobs, something very simple, very basic."

And she made a point to thank the staff that cares for veterans. Many employees at the hospital, unable to get into the room where the first lady spoke, lined the hallways for a glimpse of her.

The hospital treats many Vietnam veterans but also large numbers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Alfred Hong, director of public affairs. It has seen a large number of traumatic brain injuries from those two conflicts, he said.

The first lady visited patients in the hospital's spinal cord injury unit, giving them gifts of Yankees paraphernalia, including teddy bears, baseball caps, baseballs and other gifts.

Major League Baseball is dedicating Game 1 to veterans and their families. Also, the Yankees have traditionally set aside seats at games for military veterans. This season, some of those seats were in the priciest part of the ballpark, an area where many other fans balked at paying for the expensive tickets.

Mrs. Obama and Biden watched as Tony Odierno, a West Point graduate who lost his left arm during the war in Iraq, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before New York hosted the Philadelphia Phillies. Odierno works for the Yankees in stadium operations and his father is Gen. Ray Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq.

Security was tight before the game, with snipers walking along the top of the massive scoreboard in center field and metal detectors placed throughout the lower concourse.

The first lady and Biden were joined at the hospital by Bob DuPuy, chief operating officer of MLB; former infielder Charlie Hayes, a member of the Yankees' 1996 World Series championship team; and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, George Steinbrenner's daughter and a Yankee executive.

And though Mrs. Obama wore no baseball attire -- just a long-sleeved blouse in a vivid print and dark slacks -- and was careful not to indicate a preference in Wednesday's game, her fellow speakers were not similarly restrained. "I wore my Yankee colors!" announced the hospital's director, Maryann Musumeci. This was the Bronx, after all.

Afterward, some of the veterans in the audience said they were exhilarated by the first lady's visit.

"I think it's just great," said Gerald Brown, 62, who told of being shot three times in Vietnam, once in the shoulder and twice in the stomach. He has been treated on and off since the late '60s for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems, and sees two psychiatrists and three psychologists at the hospital.

"They shouldn't forget our Vietnam veterans," said Brown. "I just hope President Obama keeps on supporting us and our families."

Johnnie Williams was wearing a jacket that said: "Johnnie, Tet, 67-68." The 61-year-old Vietnam veteran called Mrs. Obama's visit "simply fantastic, and uplifting."

"Her visit shows she's one of a group of people today who are finally looking at veterans as a number one priority," Williams said.