Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Dr. Jill Biden at Women in the World Texas on Military Families
Hi, everyone! Thank you Tina Brown for that kind introduction.
Before I begin, I want to remind everyone that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For many of us, this is a year-round cause, and this battle is personal. We have seen a colleague or friend endure painful treatments. And not a day goes by when I do not think about the women I know whose lives were taken too early.
Not only are we in this fight for the friends and loved ones we have lost, but for our sisters, daughters, and granddaughters, so they will have the tools they need to overcome breast cancer. So, I am asking all of you here today to continue dedicating your time—and your heart—to combating this disease.
As Second Lady, during my travels across the country and around the world, I have had the honor of meeting remarkable people who lift us up. Moms in their 30s, working full-time, going back to community college to complete their education so they can create a better life for their families. Incredible teachers who keep finding creative ways to inspire their students, until they have reached every last one of them. Military spouses going through deployment after deployment—moving countless times—stopping and starting their own careers without complaint.
What I have learned along the way, is that no matter how difficult the situation, there are exceptional individuals who step up to the challenge; who go above and beyond to make an even bigger difference in their community. I see that type of extraordinary commitment in our service members, veterans, and their families, and I am always inspired by their strength, resilience, and pride.
Today, I would like to share with you a story from January of 2012 when I traveled to Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, in California where I met some truly impressive women. These women were members of the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Teams—also known as FETs—and I watched some of their training.
Due to cultural restrictions, interacting with Afghan women is off-limits to male soldiers, so the FETs play a crucial role on the front lines. When these female Marines deploy to Afghanistan, they work to build relationships with Afghan women, to gain their trust and better understand their needs, and to help bring them access to health care and education.
But rather than tell you about what they do, I want to show it to you.
Back at Camp Pendleton, I had the opportunity to watch the FETs participate in training exercises to prepare them for what they might encounter in Afghanistan. What I saw was like a movie set—an entire Afghan village re-created, so realistic they pumped in the acrid smell of goat dung.
As part of the training exercise, I saw a simulated firefight in the middle of the village, where a woman, who was actually an amputee, hired for this exercise, was struck by an explosion. Blood spurted everywhere amidst the screaming of the injured villagers. I saw how the FET team members were trained to calm and care for the woman, and then talk to other women in the village about how to take care of such serious injuries.
After visiting Camp Pendleton, I invited a group of FETs that had returned from Afghanistan to my home to learn more about their experiences. One of them, Sergeant Sheena Adams, told me about a widowed Afghan woman—a mother of nine—whom she met who could barely feed her children. Due to cultural restrictions, this mother could not work outside the home. Yet Sergeant Adams found a way for this woman to earn an income, and it was pretty simple. Using the mother’s baking talents and a son’s capacity to sell at a local bazaar, she helped the family create their own bread business.
Most of these service members were young women, just starting out their lives. What I saw from every single one of them was just how proud they were of their work. They were in harm’s way, like their male counterparts, yet they were doing something that none of their male counterparts could do—they were sharing knowledge and education with women, halfway around the world. Their service is truly remarkable.
We have asked much of service members and their families over the past decade. They sacrifice so much on behalf of our country. And a military family goes through a lot during deployment. There is a mixture of pride and concern that all military families share when a loved one is in harm’s way.
Several years ago, when I visited troops with my husband, Joe, at Camp Victory in Iraq, I spent time getting to know several of the women service members. All of them loved to serve their country and believed it was their greatest honor. But as moms, even with help from grandparents back home, it was hard for them to miss out on those important milestones in their kids’ lives—like taking them to their first day of school, whether it is kindergarten or college.
As you can imagine, it means so much to our service members when members of their community reach out to support military families during deployments. Sometimes it is the smallest things that matter most—like a neighbor helping to fix a leaky pipe, a friend bringing over a home-cooked meal, or your church including you in their prayers.
That is part of the reason First Lady Michelle Obama and I started Joining Forces. We wanted to show our appreciation for the incredible families across America who do so much for our country. We wanted to show our support not just with words, but with real, concrete opportunities in employment, education and wellness.
From the very beginning, Michelle and I both knew the American people would come out in full force. But I think it is safe to say we have been overwhelmed by the support shown for our service members, our veterans, and their families.
Businesses have stepped up: hiring more than half a million veterans and spouses in the past three years. CEOs and business owners have seen the value of the experiences and leadership that veterans and military spouses offer. And this past April, we announced the Veterans Employment Center—to connect transitioning service members, veterans, and their families to meaningful training and career employment opportunities.
States have stepped up: helping schools become more responsive to the unique needs of military families and children.
If you have ever moved from one city to another, you know how stressful and challenging it can be. For our nation’s military members and their families, frequent moves are a fact of life. Each time a military family is transferred to a new location, their children have to leave their friends, try out for new sports teams, and adjust to a new school. On average, military children will attend six to nine different schools before graduating high school. Think about how much we are asking of our military and their families.
While military moms and dads have always worked hard to ensure a change in schools for their children is as smooth as possible, unexpected and unnecessary obstacles, like transferring records, securing spaces in courses, and staying included in extracurricular activities, have made the process more difficult than it should be.
In 2007, states stepped up to address school transition issues and developed the Interstate Compact. The Interstate Compact helps students transfer special education services, medical records, and participation in extracurricular activities. I am proud to say, as of three months ago, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Interstate Compact.
And thanks to Operation Educate the Educators, more than 100 colleges and universities are training thousands of future teachers to be prepared to identify the challenges military kids face. As a lifelong educator and a military mom, the way we reach out to military children in our classrooms is especially close to my heart.
In short, America has stepped up to make a real difference. And I could go on with more about everything that has been done to support our service members, veterans, and their families. But going forward, we must challenge ourselves to do even more.
As more than a million service men and women end their military careers and transition back to civilian life, there is more that we can do together to welcome them home. In the end, that is really what Joining Forces is all about—connecting service members, veterans, and their military families with the resources available to them, and rallying our country to do even more. I believe that our military families deserve the very best efforts of each of us to show them how much we appreciate their service to our country, whatever that small act of kindness may be.
I want to leave you with a quote from President Kennedy: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Thank you, God bless our troops, and let’s keep the conversation going.