Remarks by the First Lady at the Unite for Veterans Summit
Los Angeles, California
11:37 A.M. PDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all. (Applause.) Rest yourselves. I just heard the charge. You’re going to need your energy, so I want you all well rested. Please sit. It is truly a pleasure to be with you here in Los Angeles on this terrific occasion.
I want to start by thanking your amazing mayor, Mayor Garcetti, not just for that kind introduction, but for his tremendous leadership for this city, and for our veterans, and for his service to this country in the Navy Reserve.
And I also want to throw in a thank-you to his partner, Amy, because I know that her support is going to be critical in making sure you all reach this ambitious goal. So I want to thank her for all the work that she has done in her role as first lady, for our veterans, for our servicemembers. Let’s give them both another round of applause. (Applause.)
And, of course, I want to thank Matthew for his powerful story, for sharing his journey with us, and for all the work that he is doing to support other veterans in this city. That is truly the amazing power of what our veterans do. They keep giving. That’s why we need to make sure that we give them all the resources they need to be the best Americans that they can be. We are so proud of you, Matthew -- we really are. (Applause.)
And to Elise for her remarks and leadership, we would not be here if it weren’t for the dedication and hard work of people like you. We are so grateful. As well as everyone from United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Federal Reserve Bank, the University of Southern California -- all of you, thank you for hosting this summit. Thank you for your leadership, your work. I am confident in what you are going to be doing, and grateful, just so incredibly grateful for taking this on.
And most importantly, I want to thank all of you for coming here today to show our veterans and their families that after all they have done for our country, that we have got their backs. I have had a number of incredible opportunities as First Lady, and right at the top of the list is the time I’ve spent with our servicemembers and veterans and their families.
Over the last few years, as I’ve visited with these men and women at the White House or on bases and in communities around the country, I have been blown away by their stories. I’ve been blown away by their courage, and dedication, and their unwavering commitment to excellence.
There’s the Army Ranger that I had the fortune of sitting next to at my husband’s State of the Union Address. Remember the young man who had nearly been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, but fought back to speak again, and stand again, and walk again.
There’s the soldier that we met just a month ago who was caught in a firefight in Afghanistan when a live grenade landed just feet away from him and his best friend. He responded by jumping onto that grenade to save his friend’s life.
And then there are the stories of the talent and skills these men and women display every day. They are mastering cutting-edge technologies. They’re leading dozens of their peers in the most dangerous missions on the planet. They’re doing everything from handing out humanitarian aid, responding to incoming fire, building relationships with local leaders -- sometimes all in one day.
And I’ve seen their excellence firsthand at the White House. We have folks on our policy teams, our military aides, our Navy Mess staff. They are some of the sharpest, most dynamic, and most effective people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
So when these men and women come home, they have got the skills that any company in America should want, and they’re more than prepared to succeed in any career or at any school they choose. But too often, that transition back to civilian life presents all kinds of challenges and obstacles.
Just try putting yourselves in their shoes for just a moment. After spending your entire life in service to your country on a military base or in combat, you come home to a very different way of life. The friends who have been by your side every minute are suddenly spread out all across the country, and there’s nobody around who understands what you’ve been through. The missions that drove you every day are gone. The skills you’ve spent years developing are not valued or understood in the civilian world.
I met a man, young man, who served five years in the Navy, managing a team of sailors and dealing with complicated data and equipment. But in the two years -- two and a half years after he came home, he went through dozens of rejections before UPS recognized his management skills and gave him a job.
Then there are even tougher stories. A couple of months ago, I met a young woman who’d had experiences during her time in Afghanistan that she struggled to recover from once she returned home. Her life unraveled. She lost her job, got into drugs, ended up living out of her car before she got the therapy and employment she needed to get back on track.
Now, I want to be clear -- just a tiny percentage of veterans end up homeless. And the majority of these men and women transition back in good health and good spirits and go on to build successful careers and strong families. But after everything they have done for us, the idea that any of our veterans are spending months, or even years, struggling to find a job is unacceptable. (Applause.) It’s unacceptable.
And the image of even one of these heroes sleeping out in the cold, huddled up next to an overpass -- that should horrify all of us. Because that’s not who we are. And the truth is, we know that there are simple steps that we can take -- whether that’s in business or government or in our communities -- to prevent and solve these kinds of problems.
My husband has led the way to developing and devoting historic levels of funding and resources to helping our vets transition back to civilian life. On employment, we’ve started new programs to help veterans get civilian licenses for jobs they did in the military. Through our Joining Forces initiative, we have rallied businesses to hire or train more than half a million veterans and military spouses. And we’ve launched a one-stop website to connect veterans to employers looking to hire them. And any business or organization here today or out there listening that wants to hire vets should sign up at eBenefits.VA.gov.
And when it comes to veteran homelessness, my husband vowed, as the mayor said, not just to address this issue, but to end it once and for all. So the administration is cutting red tape across agencies. We’re starting new programs and strengthening old ones to get veterans into homes right away. And over the past few years, these efforts have brought tens of thousands of veterans out of homelessness. They have helped prevent over 100,000 more [from] falling into homelessness in the first place. And even in the face of difficult economic times, we have seen the rate of homeless veterans in our country fall by 24 percent under this President. (Applause.) So we are making some real progress.
But we know that government can’t do this alone. If we’re going to make a difference on this issue, issues like employment and homelessness, we have got to get communities across the country engaged at every level. That means businesses, government and foundations. It means nonprofits. It means our schools, our hospitals. It means neighbors from down the street.
And that’s why I am so excited about this conference, why I really want to be here today -- because that’s exactly what you’re doing right here in Los Angeles. With your 10,000 Strong initiative -- I almost said 100,000. Sorry, Mayor. (Laughter.) Ten thousand is really good. (Laughter.) You’ve secured commitments from nearly 150 businesses and public sector organizations to hire 10,000 veterans by 2017.
And I really, really want to commend you for doing this the right way -- because you’re not just talking about hiring these veterans; you’re talking about retaining them and giving them a chance to grow in the years ahead. (Applause.) Yes, you’re doing it the right way. (Applause.) You’re recruiting volunteers to work with veterans on their résumés, holding mock interviews. You’re focusing on good jobs -- jobs in health care and entertainment, jobs in engineering, finance, and so much more.
So I want to applaud Mayor Garcetti’s office and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles for heading this charge. And as if hiring 10,000 veterans wasn’t enough, this community is also tackling a problem that this country has tacitly accepted for far too long, and that is homelessness among our veterans.
So when I heard that this mayor was joining the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness by the end of 2015, I couldn’t have been more excited. I really couldn’t have been more excited. Because we can’t end homelessness without all of you. More than one out of every 10 homeless veterans in America lives right here in Los Angeles, as the mayor said. And that’s more than any other community in the country -- more than 6,000 veterans in total.
And I know that’s a big number -- and make no mistake, it is an aggressive goal. But we’ve seen time and time again that if you break these numbers down, if you work on the ground with landlords to find open apartments, with developers to build new housing; if you rally community groups, and congregations, and businesses around this issue -- then this problem becomes eminently solvable.
That’s what they realized in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, where they’ve already effectively ended chronic homelessness among their veterans. And down in New Orleans they’ve committed to end all veteran homelessness in the next six months -- and they are on track to do it today. And here in LA, the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce have brought public and private partners together for this incredible program called Home for Good. And together, you have housed more than 9,000 veterans since 2011.
And on top of that, I want to applaud voters and legislators here in the state for voting to authorize $600 million toward housing for veteran families -- (applause) -- which is the largest state-funded effort in this country. Well done.
So you’ve already laid much of the groundwork to reach this goal. And now, as your leader, your mayor said, you just got to finish the job. And I know that’s not going to be easy, but I also want you to know that you won’t have to do this alone. We will be with you every step of the way –- folks from the White House, the VA, the Interagency Council on Homelessness, we will all be there to support you, to connect you with other leaders across the country who can share their best practices on homelessness or employment. Because we are all in this together, and we have got to remember that this work isn’t just about paying back the debt we owe these men and women, it’s about investing in their future and the future of this country.
Take the story of a man I had a chance to meet backstage, Jim Zenner. I met Jim and his wife and his young son. Jim served as an Army intelligence analyst during the Iraq War. And when he first came back home, he was mostly OK. His father was a Vietnam vet, and Jim could always turn to him when he needed to talk to someone. But a few months later, Jim’s father died unexpectedly. And that’s when, as Jim says, “Things, they just kind of fell apart.”
He became easily irritated, and got into shouting matches with his wife. And one night, it got so bad that Jim had to move out of the house. He spent the night sleeping in his car -- and then he asked for help. He reached out to the VA, and they connected him with Volunteers of America, which used the VA Grant and Per Diem Program to help Jim pay for an apartment for him and his oldest son.
So for seven months, Jim had a place to call home as he got his life back on track and went to school to get his master’s in social work. He got the therapy he needed through the VA. He saved up enough money to eventually buy a place of his own. And during that time, Volunteers of America was so impressed with Jim that they asked him to open the new Hollywood Veterans Center -- a 48-bed readjustment facility for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. And in the four years since it opened, the center has given shelter, counseling, and job training to nearly 350 veterans.
And Jim also keeps paying it forward when he hires for his staff positions. Jim manages about 12 staffers, and seven of them are post-9/11 veterans.
So because this city was there for Jim, because the VA had those grants, because doctors cared for Jim and helped save his marriage, because an organization on the ground housed him and then hired him -- Jim is able to keep giving back to the country he loves. That’s all our veterans want to do. See, that’s what so many of them do -- they keep on serving for the rest of their lives, because that is who they are.
And now it’s time for us to show who we are. It’s time to match their service with service of our own. And that’s especially important now -- because with our war in Iraq over and a war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, thousands of men and women who risked their lives for this country are transitioning back home. And we cannot make the same mistakes for this generation that we made in the past. (Applause.)
So the work we all do together is for all of our veterans. Whether they served in Vietnam or the Gulf War or Afghanistan or any other time in our history, we want to show them that we don’t leave any veteran behind. And all we have to do is show just a fraction of the courage and commitment that our veterans have shown to all of us.
We don’t have to do much -- we don’t have to dodge bullets, we don’t have to jump on grenades. We just have to keep veterans in mind when we’re hiring for that next open spot. We just have to make sure they have a place to call home.
And that’s why all of you are here today -- because you believe like I do that we can do this. I heard you. (Laughter.) And I want you to know that when you reach this goal -- yes, “when,” not “if” -- when -- you will be a model for the entire country. And I am not exaggerating. You’ll be starting a movement that can spread across America -- folks in Houston, and Chicago, and New York will want to follow your lead. Folks in small towns and mid-size cities will think, “Well, if they can house 6,000 veterans in Los Angeles, then surely we can house a couple hundred. If they can hire 10,000 veterans, then surely our businesses can hire a quarter of that number.”
That’s the impact you all can have -- an impact that would be felt by millions of veterans across the country, starting here.
So I want to once again thank you -- thank you for everything you’ve done, everything that you will do in the years ahead to serve our veterans as well as they’ve served this country. This is a great day today. And I look forward to coming back and celebrating you reaching that goal.
Thank you all. God bless. (Applause.)
11:55 A.M. PDT