WASHINGTON — Sporting the Marine Corps necklace she wears to honor her son, Karen Pence roamed the vice president's mansion greeting guests and thanking them for the role they play in the military.
"I just want you to know how much we appreciate you," she told the audience of about three dozen women representing all five service branches. "... It's not an easy place to be where you are, and I think we're learning that more and more in the position that we're in."
The March 23 reception marked the second such event in the span of a week, the former occurring over lunch at Fort Meade in Maryland. Days later the second lady held a similar meet-and-greet with military spouses at Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi, where her son and daughter-in-law are stationed.
. @SecondLady: When people tell me "thank you for your sacrifice Mrs. Pence," I think it's nothing compared to what our military spouses do. pic.twitter.com/mgpwEUAWMy
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) March 27, 2017
The events are notable because Pence has said she wants to make highlighting military women and families one of her main platforms, and because they're happening as the Pentagon contends with fallout from a vast sexual harassment scandal that has, once again, exposed the Defense Department's enduring problem with misogyny in the workplace. To date, President Trump and his inner circle have stayed quiet on that issue, making Pence one of the most senior administration officials to directly engage with military women left wondering what — if anything — will change.
The White House has declined to address questions about its plans for addressing the scandal, which exploded one month ago when media reports exposed various online photo-sharing communities where service members and military veterans have allegedly posted nude or otherwise compromising photos of their female colleagues and, in many cases, made disparaging or threatening remarks about them. First lady Melania Trump, who indicated cyber bullying and women's rights would be among her platform goals, also has declined to address the issue.
In a statement to Military Times, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said such alleged misconduct represents "egregious violations of the fundamental values we uphold."
Pence and her husband are the second consecutive Blue Star family to occupy the vice president’s mansion. Joe and Jill Biden’s late son Beau served in the Delaware Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2008 when his father was elected.
A spokeswoman for Pence declined to address questions about the second lady's recent events and what she has said to military women in response to the scandal. Related news releases indicate her goal was simply to honor women who serve, and in remarks during her March 23 reception in Washington, she told those in attendance "we just have such respect for you."
Meanwhile, critics of the administration have suggested the events are a missed opportunity. "What is this White House thanking women veterans for — our ability to tolerate harassment, or our silence while crimes are swept under the rug?" said Trina McDonald, spokeswoman for the group Common Defense, which has criticized the White House for its response so far to a host of military issues.
"As a female veteran and survivor of military sexual trauma," she added, "I struggle with the second lady thanking me for my service, while Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump are doing nothing to fix the problems that me and other women in the military face."
Women’s rights groups have questioned whether Trump, who on the campaign trail cast doubt on his predecessor's effort to integrate women into ground combat jobs, can be a credible advocate for their issues. It remains to be seen how the administration will act upon the information collected by the second lady during her recent engagements, though it appears that was at least part of their purpose.
During her event at Fort Meade, Pence told the women in attendance that she sees herself as a "listening ear" for the White House, someone who can report back to the president on the challenges they face. "My role," she added, "is one of encouragement, it’s one of gratitude," according to a report in the Capital Gazette.
Pence said she wished to avoid specific policy discussions, but the base's sexual assault response coordinator appeared to challenge her on that score, asking Pence whether she is familiar with the military's programs to address abuse among adult women and school-age children. When Pence said no, the coordinator, Army 1st Sgt. Christina Pearson, explained how she engages with sex assault victims who, in some cases, have coped with trauma for many years, according to the Gazette.
"God bless you," Pence told the first sergeant. "That's a tough thing to hear their stories ... and not get discouraged yourself."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.