Remarks by The First Lady at Elizabeth Dole Foundation Caregiver Summit
3:39 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Well, hello. I think Kat is a hard act to follow. She’s pretty amazing. (Applause.) Yes, absolutely.
But I want to start by thanking Senator Dole for her remarks, but more importantly, for her extraordinary leadership on such an important issue in this country. And I also have to recognize Secretary McDonald for all of his efforts on behalf of our veterans and their families, as well as everyone from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, especially all of your tremendous Caregiver Fellows that we have here with us today.
And again, finally, I have to thank one of those Fellows -- Kat -- for sharing her remarkable story. I met Kat a couple of weeks ago at the White House, and as you just heard, her story, it exemplifies the dedication and the courage and the resilience that defines our nation’s caregivers. She blew me away back then. And I told her, I told Kat -- I said, she’s in. We're going to suck her up and -- (laughter.) She didn’t believe me, but I was like, this won't be the last time you see me. (Laughter.) She’s pretty amazing. And she’s been through a lot even today. And she’s here, and I'm so proud of you. You’ve got an amazing voice on this issue.
Although there are just over one million caregivers for our post-9/11 veterans in this country -- they are spouses and parents, siblings, friends, neighbors who serve and sacrifice, hour after hour, day after day, right alongside our wounded warriors.
While our country has become familiar with the inspiring stories of servicemembers who’ve risked their lives for this country -- we honor these men and women with parades and ceremonies, we have begun to tell their stories in movies and on TV -- the stories of our caregivers too often go untold. We don’t always hear about the quiet courage of a spouse like Kat, who’s there for her husband almost every hour of every single day.
We don’t always see the sister who quits her job to support her brother as he learns to stand again, and walk again, and run again. Or the father who retires early so he can drive his daughter to her rehab appointments, and consult with her doctors, and assist with the painstaking work of recovery.
All of the caregivers here today understand how your life can be flipped upside down in an instant. You know the feeling that Kat described to me a couple of weeks ago -- this is what she said. She said: “Everything from before is gone. Any dreams you had, any plans,” she said, “it’s burned up. It’s in a house that’s on fire, and there’s no going back to it.” Those words hit me deeply.
But Kat wasn’t angry, and she wasn’t looking for sympathy when she said those words. It’s simply how she felt. It was her truth. It was her reality. Because she knows she’s lucky to have her husband alive at all. As she says, as a caregiver, at least “you get to rebuild together.” That was beautiful.
And as you all know, the rebuilding process is not easy for your loved one -- or for you. You love your warrior with all your heart, and you’re proud to help them recover. But as the days become months, and the months become years, the constant giving, and giving, and giving can become its own heavy weight. You might have trouble sleeping, or finding some time for yourself. Your marriage might suffer. You might worry about your job security because of all the time you need to take off. Or you might begin to feel distant from friends or family -- folks who mean well, but they don’t quite understand everything you’re going through.
It can be isolating, and physically and emotionally exhausting. Kat told me she’s never felt worse than those nights she’d go to bed and tell herself that she was just too tired, that she didn’t have anything more to give. And as we know from the RAND study that Senator Dole commissioned last year, those emotional lows are not uncommon. Our caregivers are more likely than the general population to face mental health challenges like depression.
But here’s what makes caregivers like you all so inspiring for me. No matter what you're going through, you always find a way to dig just a little deeper. You always find more to give. You always keep moving forward and rebuilding for your families.
And we are here today because we want to show you that you're not alone in this journey -- because here in America, caring for our wounded warriors cannot be a one-person assignment. It’s a solemn obligation for our entire country to be there for you. It’s a crucial part of securing our nation. (Applause.)
You all are a part of that security that helps keep us all safe. And it’s a way for the rest of us to fulfill our duty to those who’ve sacrificed so much. But we can’t just say those things –- we’ve got to do something that makes a real difference in our caregivers’ lives.
And that’s why, five years ago, my husband signed a groundbreaking law that supports caregivers with financial stipends and travel reimbursements, as well as access to health care, respite care, and so much more. And it’s why our Joining Forces initiative has been working hand in hand with the Dole Foundation to rally folks across the country to support our caregivers.
And last April, as many of you know, we hosted an event at the White House to launch the Hidden Heroes coalition -– as you know, a collection of public and private partners who were stepping up to address this issue. Throughout this day, you’ve heard about all the incredible progress this coalition has made in the time since on issues like employment and education, community support. And every step of the way, the Dole Foundation and their partners kept asking themselves: How can we make an even bigger impact? What gaps are we missing? Who else can we get involved?
And that’s led to an even deeper focus on the area of mental health because we know that mental health is an issue that’s too often swept under the rug; that in our country, there’s sometimes a reluctance to talk about these issues or to get the help that we need.
So today I’m proud to announce a series of new commitments from the Dole Foundation and Give an Hour, which is a wonderful -- yes, Give an Hour. (Applause.) Give an Hour is an amazing nonprofit that’s leading a nationwide mental health awareness effort called The Campaign to Change Direction.
First, they’re teaming up with Easter Seals on a training webinar to educate caregivers on the campaign’s five signs of mental distress –- signs like withdrawal, or agitation, a decline in personal care –- so that caregivers can identify those signs when they see them, and then get their warriors, their families, or themselves the help they need.
Second, they’re training faith leaders all across the country on those five signs -- because we know that clergy are often the first people caregivers will turn to for help.
And then, third, they’re educating community mental health providers on military culture, so that if a caregiver or a warrior seeks help outside of the VA system, it’s easier to find a provider who understands the unique stresses and demands of military life.
So this is a wonderful series of commitments, and I’m especially excited about them because they’re not simply focused on caregivers and their families, but on the communities that surround them as well. Because if we’re going to tell our caregivers that they’re not alone, then we’ve got to enlist others who can be there to support them -- folks who truly understand what they’re going though. And we know that one of the best ways we can do that is to help you guys connect with those folks.
You might remember a story I told last year about when I visited with a group of caregivers at Fort Belvoir -- how those five women opened up to each other and started troubleshooting, connecting each other with resources, and offering tips and advice on the things they figured out along the way. It was the first time the folks at Fort Belvoir had convened a group like this, and they immediately saw the value in it and made a commitment to expand the program at their base.
And today, that group is serving more than 100 caregivers at Fort Belvoir alone. And building from that success, I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense has launched peer support groups like that same one at more than 60 military facilities around the world. (Applause.)
And they’re holding monthly online forums for folks who aren’t able to make it to an in-person meeting. So this is the thing -- in just a little more than a year, we’ve gone from a single meeting of five women to a worldwide network of in-person groups and online resources that serve caregivers no matter where they live.
And here at the Dole Foundation, you all are facilitating the same kind of connection with your online peer support network. And many of your fellows are reaching out online and in their own communities as well. For example, one of your fellows -- Blair Hughes -- facilitates an online community of more than 1,000 members that reviews products and resources online. It’s kind of like a Yelp for the caregivers. (Laughter.) So it’s good stuff. (Applause.)
So every day we’re seeing more and more resources and programs specifically designed for those who care for our wounded warriors. And now we’ve got to make sure that our caregivers out there understand that those resources exist. We got to make sure that they know where to find them, how to connect with folks who want to support them.
So to all the caregivers out there, I just want to make sure you know that you can go to whitehouse.gov/caregivers where you can get connected to support through the VA, the DOD, and many other resources. That’s just one place you can go.
Or if you’re looking for in-person support, you can go to your local VA -- one of your vet centers. I visited one of those centers -- they’re amazing. They’re more state of the art. Or if you’re living on base, I want you to go to your Recovery Care Coordinator -- or anyone on base who can connect you with the resources that you need.
And that’s really what Joining Forces is all about. We want to connect you to the people, resources, and opportunities that can make a difference in your daily lives so that as you rebuild with your families, you never have to do it alone. You’ll have employers, and health care providers, and neighbors who better understand your experience and how they can help. That’s what we’re working toward. Not just today, and not just for these next couple of years -- but for the long haul.
Because this isn’t just something I’m doing as First Lady -- it’s something I'm doing as an American. And I look forward to working with whichever family follows ours in the White House to keep on addressing these caregiver issues and all the issues our veterans and military families are facing. Because as we see right here in this room today, this is an issue that everyone can get behind, no matter what political party you belong to.
So to all the caregivers here today, and you’re families, I want you to know that we’re not done yet. We know that we have more work to do. And as I said last year, I think if we’re falling short, if there are any gaps that we need to keep filling, we want to know about it and we want to try to keep getting better. Because we want to serve you as well as you have served us.
You’re some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met in my life. And all of us here in this room, and all across this country, want you to feel all of our love and our support every single day. Not just when we gather you here in Washington -- but every single day. This is nice, too, right? (Laughter.) It’s not bad.
So, again, I want to thank you. Thank you all for your service, your commitment to this country. And I look forward to continuing our work together in the years ahead.
God bless you all. (Applause.)
3:54 P.M. EDT