HERMON, Maine — It’s not every day that a couple from Hermon gets an invite to dine at the White House as guests of the president and first lady.
But that was the case this week when Staff Sgt. Benjamin Straubel of the Maine Army National Guard and his wife, Robyn, attended an event called: “A Nation’s Gratitude: Honoring those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.”
Held Wednesday night at the White House and hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the tribute was attended by military men and women chosen to represent the more than 1 million Americans who were deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
Also applauded were families who supported them and kept the home fires burning.
“It was an incredible experience,” Straubel said Thursday, describing a whirlwind of activity that began when he and Robyn arrived in the capital Tuesday afternoon, followed by visits to national monuments, the U.S. Senate gallery and dinner at White House. The trip was capped by an invitation to visit U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe at her offices on Capitol Hill before being dropped off at the airport for their return flight home.
“It was pretty intense,” he said.
“It was the fastest 48 hours of our lives,” agreed Robyn, who grew up in East Hodgdon.
The guest list included attendees from all 50 of the United States and the nation’s territories, all branches of the service and a variety of ranks, Straubel said. Also represented were Blue Star families and the Wounded Warrior Project.
The Straubels did not know they were attending until Valentine’s Day, when an invitation from the White House arrived with the rest of their mail, Straubel said Thursday during a layover at LaGuardia Airport.
Though personal cameras are tightly controlled at the White House, the Straubels and other guests were encouraged to take as many pictures as they pleased and were given unlimited access, an offer they gladly took up, Robyn Straubel said with a laugh.
Other mementos they returned with include a copy of the menu and the place cards from the dinner in the East Room.
But most of all, the Straubels said Thursday that they were deeply honored to be able to represent those who served and are serving and those who lost their lives in defense of home and country.
“It was my first time in Washington, D.C., and my first visit to the White House,” said the guardsman, a native of Littleton.
Straubel, 31, recently was tapped to serve as a human resources sergeant at the Maine Army National Guard’s Regional Training Institute, adjacent to the Bangor Armed Forces Reserve Center on Hildreth Street in Bangor.
For 10 years before that, he was a training noncommissioned officer for Brewer-based Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, he said Thursday.
Staubel, 31, has been deployed twice, the first time from April 2005 to July 2006 to Iraq and again for all of 2010, when he served in Afghanistan.
And although Straubel did not mention it during a telephone interview from the airport, his wife noted that he is the recipient of a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for Valor, a Combat Infantry Badge as well as a Maine Silver Star Honorable Service Medal.
The Purple Heart, she said, was for shrapnel wounds her husband suffered during combat, mostly to his face and arms.
Among the loved ones watching from home through a live feed on C-SPAN2 were the couple’s sons Conrad, 6, and Elliot, 4. The boys stayed home with Robyn’s mother, who traveled down from The County to baby-sit.
When Vice President Joe Biden recognized military families, “I really got choked up,” Robyn said. “It really did sink in what an honor it was to represent those who didn’t get the chance to be there.”
“It was very moving. It was very much the royal treatment,” Benjamin said. “It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was just trying to take it all in.”
In honor of the White House visit, Straubel wore his dress blues with a bow tie while his wife wore a floor-length black gown with sequins at the top, a bolero jacket and an up do.
“Really it was beautiful,” Straubel said of Robyn’s dress.
“Of course it was a maternity gown — a full gown that showcased her pregnancy,” Straubel said, adding that the couple’s third son is due in June.
And the menu?
Robyn Straubel said that guests were treated to beautifully prepared hors d’oeuvres during a reception preceding the dinner, followed by a salad of baby tomatoes and mozzarella with a balsamic dressing, a main course of beef, french-fried mashed potatoes and an array of other vegetables, and a trio of chocolate desserts.
During the reception, the U.S. Marine Corps band played military airs and show tunes and later, during dinner, a string ensemble played.
“The room was so beautiful and you felt like you were in a movie,” Robyn Straubel said. “It was just a little surreal. I kept thinking, ‘We’re actually meeting the president.’”