WASHINGTON — First lady Melania Trump used her first public appearance in weeks to recognize the sacrifices of Gold Star families at a White House event Monday night, saying the country owes them a debt of gratitude.

The ceremony, which was not open to the press, comes after weeks of speculation about the first lady’s health, following a kidney procedure conducted at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on May 14.

She had not been seen with President Donald Trump or at any White House events since, although administration officials insisted her absence was not indicative of larger problems.

Her appearance at the military-themed event on Monday drew extra media attention to the 40 families of fallen service members invited, a move that White House officials said they hoped brought more public attention to those families’ challenges.

“To all those who have lost loved ones in service to our country, our nation grieves with you,” Melania Trump said in a statement released after the event. “It is a solemn reminder that we, the American people, are able to live as freely as we do because of the selfless sacrifices of our men and women in uniform.

“We remain indebted to each of them and we honor them today, together, with their families.”

White House officials did not give a reason for closing the event to the press, although the move is not highly unusual for sensitive or intimate events with the commander in chief. Both the president and vice president attended.

The administration has held several events focused on Gold Star families over the last 16 months, but has also courted controversy with its handling of death notifications for the families of fallen troops and public spats with individual families who have criticized the president.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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