After an unprecedented absence from public view, First Lady Melania Trump made her long-awaited reemergence Monday evening when she walked into the East Room of the White House alongside her husband for a ceremony to honor Gold Star families.
As conspiracy theories swirled about the reason for her more than three-week disappearance — which scholars say was an unrivaled public absence when compared to any first lady in modern history — attendees at the event tell PEOPLE they were “relieved” to see Mrs. Trump, 48, looking well.
“She looked good, and it was reassuring,” says Tony Cordero, 56, whose father was killed in Vietnam. “I think everyone was relieved to see she was healthy and up and about.”
Adds Bonnie Carroll, whose Army general husband died in a 1992 plane crash: “She looked beautiful, perfectly fit and healthy.”
The first lady had not been seen in public since May 10, days before she underwent a “successful” procedure to treat what was described by her staff as an unspecified benign kidney condition requiring a short hospital stay. The first lady reportedly returned home to the White House on Saturday, May 19, but remained out of the spotlight, also skipped a gathering at Camp David last weekend with the president and his grown children.
Despite the first lady’s brief public return, her spokesperson told NBC News that the first lady won’t attend the G7 summit in Canada this week with the president, nor go on a June 12 trip to Singapore for her husband’s rescheduled meeting with North Korean leaders.
Upon her reappearance Monday in a fashionable black dress, Mrs. Trump took a seat in the front of the crowd as her husband addressed the families of 50 fallen soldiers, lost in conflicts from World War II to the present — and pointedly referenced his wife’s long-awaited reemergence.
“The president, in his opening, referenced that there had been questions that she hasn’t been seen and she had a health challenge she had to work through,” says Carroll, founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the leading grief-support service for military families.
“He said she had taken care of herself and rested,” Carroll says, “and how it was so important for her to be there and how much it meant to her that they both would not be anywhere else.”
Trump also joked about some of the theories behind Melania’s absence, including claims that the Trumps may be headed for divorce.
Jena Greene, a reporter for The Daily Caller whose father was killed during the Iraq war, was present at the event and tweeted that the president “laughed off rumors of them breaking up, saying it wasn’t happening. “Isn’t that right honey?”
During the moving, hour-plus ceremony, the couple sat together as a candle was lit for each of the 50 late service members. At the ceremony’s end, the crowd of 300 stood to sing “America the Beautiful.”
“Everyone was in tears,” says Carroll.
The first lady then “did speak to families adjacent to her,” says Cordero, founder of Sons and Daughters in Touch, a group for those whose fathers were killed in Vietnam.
The Trumps also hugged Chief of Staff John Kelly and Kelly’s wife, Karen Hernest, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, before the first couple left together, says Carroll.