Remarks by the First Lady at National Military Family Association Summit
12:36 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you, everyone. Thank you all so much. (Applause.) Please, thank you. You know I get embarrassed by too much clapping. (Laughter.)
Thank you. I am thrilled to be here. And I want to start by thanking Mary for that very kind introduction and for her life of service, more than 30 years as an Army spouse, proud mother to six children -- you would never know -- (laughter) -- and all six of whom serve in the Armed Services, and now, your leadership as chair of the National Military Family Association. We are just grateful for your work. And thank you and your entire family for your outstanding service to this country. Let’s give Mary a round of applause. (Applause.)
And to everyone here at NMFA -- that's a tongue twister for me; isn't it for you? -- (laughter) -- thank you so much for bringing us all together for this very important summit. And I hear things have been going really well.
I want us to give a big round of applause to the person who I understand put this all together, Executive Director Joyce Raezer. And I know she’s out there. Where is Joyce? There you are. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you for everything. (Applause.)
As Mary said, as First Lady I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to help shine a spotlight on the amazing service of our military families -- all of your families.
And I’m so grateful to be joined in this effort by a truly wonderful partner in this work. She’s a Blue Star mom and a champion of our National Guard and Reserve families, my friend, Dr. Jill Biden.
As many of you heard, Jill couldn’t be here because her son Beau was admitted to the hospital yesterday, but he is expected to make a full recovery, and our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Biden family.
So together, Jill and I have tried to help make sure that the voices of military families -- your voices -- make sure that they are heard here in Washington, to help make sure that your priorities are America’s priorities.
And I say that we’ve tried “to help” because, of course, this is really what all of you do every single day. So, I’d like to thank you all, all the organizations joining us today from across the country -- military families representing military families, spouses and leaders in your own right, including Deborah Mullen who is here and to whom Jill and I are so grateful for her thoughtful advice and friendship along the way, as well as all of the spouses of the Joint Chiefs and senior enlisted advisors. Let’s give Deborah a round of applause. (Applause.) I know she’s very embarrassed about that, but -- (applause.)
I'd also like to thank our partners inside and outside of government who have joined us here, including researchers whose pioneering work is guiding this summit. And I look forward to seeing your Blueprint for Action, which can help guide our national efforts as we work to serve our military families even better.
As organizations, as individuals, each of you has made a profound difference in the lives of so many families. But we’re here today because we know that, like the NMFA says, “Together we’re stronger.” Together we’re stronger.
So I couldn’t think of a better time and place to come together and discuss a subject that we all know needs to assume its rightful place in America’s agenda -- and that is the state of our military families -- where we are today; where we’re going -- our vision of a nation that truly supports our military families, not just now, but over the long term; and finally, how, as a country, we can turn our vision into reality.
The first part of our task is to recognize the state of our military families today.
And I want every American to understand what you all see every day. We know that our military families are some of the most patriotic, some of the most dedicated, the most service-oriented Americans you will ever meet. They are spouses who somehow manage to do it all -- like the woman from Michigan who wrote to me saying -- she said, “I wear many hats -- career woman, mother of three daughters, and a soldier’s wife.” She described the everyday challenges of holding the family together during her husband’s deployment. But she added, “I am proud of my husband and so very proud to be a soldier’s wife.”
They are families that, even as they serve the nation, they still find time to serve their own communities -- like the Gordons, who I met during the Toys for Tots drive at the Marine base at Quantico. They spent so much time collecting toys for other children that they had to bring their family’s Christmas tree into the collection center so they could actually enjoy it. (Laughter.)
But we also know that after more than eight years of war, with just 1 percent of our population -- our troops --doing 100 percent of the fighting, that these strong families are being tested like never before.
They are resilient, so they don’t always show it. And they are proud, so they don’t always talk about it. So a lot of Americans don’t always see it. But these are the hard realities that you know.
These families have served through multiple deployments, year after year -- like the inspiring mother and daughter that I just got to meet, you heard from this morning: Christian and Emryse Geye, whose husband and father, Martin, is now in Iraq on his fourth tour of duty, his fourth deployment.
For these deployed parents, they miss out on the birthdays and the anniversaries and special moments that every family treasures -- like the father who I recently met during my visit to Walter Reed. It was there, laying in his bed, recovering from his wounds, that he finally held his newborn son for the first time.
And we can never forget our incredible military kids -- little children who’ve spent most of their lives with a parent deployed, and older siblings who shoulder more responsibility than even most adults can imagine.
They’re kids like Brittany Wallace, Operation Homefront’s 2009 Military Child of the Year, who I got to meet last year. When her father was wounded, her mother had to leave home to help him recover. Brittany went from being a teenager to a mom for her siblings. She explained, in her own words, she said, “My priorities changed. My family came first.”
So I want to commend the NMFA and RAND for your pioneering research, which has highlighted the resilience of our military children, but also how today’s war can be so very hard for them, and how it doesn’t get easier with each deployment -- it actually gets harder. And I want to thank you for using this summit to develop actions we can take as a nation to support these amazing children.
And our military families -- they’re caregivers, pulling their own lives together and putting them on hold, working every day, around the clock, to care for our wounded warriors.
They are families who live every day knowing that a loved one is in harm’s way -- like the mother who wrote to me saying, “A good day is when a chaplain doesn’t knock on my door.”
They are the family and the friends of the fallen who the President and I met in Arlington as they spent a few moments among those marble headstones, remembering the honor and honoring their loved ones.
We know that over these past eight years, we’ve seen an outpouring of support for our troops and their families. Congress and government have responded with new programs and funding. Our military is more family-friendly than ever before. Organizations like yours have been a godsend to so many families. The American people have volunteered their time, they’ve contributed money, sent care packages, they’ve lined up at airports to welcome our troops home.
Entire towns and cities have come to a standstill as Americans have paid their respects as flag-draped caskets carry our fallen heroes to their final resting place.
And yet we all know something else -- that even with all this generosity and goodwill, many families are still not receiving all the support that they need. And that’s another hard reality. And it’s the reason that we’re here today -- because too many families still struggle to access the benefits and the assistance that they need.
We know that too many spouses still aren’t receiving the support to deal with the stress of separation, and that includes mental health counseling. And we want to thank Deborah Mullen for bringing this issue to the nation’s attention.
Too many spouses still find it hard to pursue their own education and their own careers. Too many military kids are still struggling, with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Too many veterans will find it hard to translate their military experience into jobs in the private sector or civilian service to their communities.
And although I think it would pain most Americans to hear this, we have to be honest. Too many of our military families still think a lot of Americans don’t fully appreciate what they’re going through, how they sacrifice for us. As one military mom appealed to me in a letter, she said, “Please don’t let Americans forget or ignore what we live with.” She said, “We are at war.”
And finally, we know that the needs of our military families are only going to grow. Our forces and their families face more deployments. That means more veterans needing care, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. It means more caregivers needing support. It means more survivors who can never be forgotten.
As America asks more of these families, they have a right to expect more of us. This is our moral obligation.
It’s also a matter of national security. The readiness of our armed forces depends on the readiness of our military families.
So that’s the second part of our task -- ensuring that, as a nation, we have the capacity to support and engage our military families at every stage of their lives, over the long term. That requires going forward, together, with a shared vision of the future that our military families deserve.
Here today, we know what that future can look like. I know all of you do. We see an America where every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman -- and woman -- can deploy knowing that their family will be taken care of. So instead of worrying about benefits and bureaucracy, our troops can focus on their mission, which is protecting our country.
We see an America where every spouse has the support he or she needs, including a clear understanding of the programs that are available and how to access them.
We see an America where every military child is recognized as someone who serves too, in their own way; and where they receive the support they need to pursue their dreams.
We see an America where our troops and veterans and their spouses are recognized for what they are -- and that is skilled and talented leaders who have so much to offer our country, not only during their military service, but throughout their lives.
And we see an America where more Americans not only understand the service and sacrifices of our troops and their families, but where more Americans take action to help lighten that load.
This is the future that our military families deserve.
So the question is: How do we get there? And that’s the final part of our task -- turning that vision into reality.
Now, there was a time, like in World War II, when the whole nation went to war. Everyone contributed in some way, even on the home front -- planting Victory Gardens and buying War Bonds.
But the truth is, with the amazing capabilities of our all-volunteer force and the nature of today’s wars, most Americans haven’t really had to sacrifice in the current conflicts.
Well, that may be a luxury of our time, but it’s no excuse not to be engaged. And we’re fortunate to have organizations like all of yours, and the infrastructure in government -— especially the Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs -— leading our efforts on behalf of our troops and our families.
But that’s no excuse not to fulfill the responsibility that each of us have as citizens. So today I’m issuing a national challenge -— a challenge to every sector of American society to mobilize and take action to support and engage our military families. We need a truly national commitment here.
One percent of Americans may be fighting our wars, but we need 100 percent of Americans to support them and their families. This has to be all hands on deck. This is a challenge to government.
As President, my husband and his administration have made military families a priority. They’ve increased pay and benefits and increased funds for military housing and childcare and counseling and career development for spouses. And the budget for next year would continue to strengthen military family support programs. They’ve extended the Family and Medical Leave Act to more military families and caregivers. And last week, my husband signed into law legislation that many of you fought for -- expanding veterans’ health care and giving unprecedented support to caretakers.
At the Department of Defense, which is responsible for so many of our military family programs, Secretary Gates’ and Admiral Mullen’s leadership has resulted in a great deal of progress.
But as they will tell you, there’s still much more we need to know to serve these families better. So I want to commend the department for launching the Military Family Life Project. This is going to be a landmark study of more than 100,000 spouses and servicemembers to assess their quality of life and to better understand how families experience deployments.
It’s starting this month, so I want to encourage all the spouses who were selected to fully participate in this project, because the more that this nation knows about your priorities, the more we can do to meet them.
This is also a challenge across the federal government, where there are so many programs and policies and potential partnerships that could benefit military families.
For instance, at the Department of Agriculture, the 4-H program, which can be found in every county in America -- from cities to rural communities -- has forged partnerships with the armed services to help military kids when their parents are deployed.
And today, I’m proud to announce that my husband has directed a new effort to bring together the resources of the federal government for this mission. The President has directed the national security staff to lead a government-wide review that will identify new priorities across the federal government, including new partnerships, to support military families. And it’s going to urge every department to make supporting these families a very high priority. And it will begin to lay the foundation for a more coordinated government approach to supporting and engaging military families for years to come.
But this is also a challenge to state and local governments, whose services touch military families in so many ways. For example, as you know, the Interstate Compact that makes it easier for military children to transfer to new schools and keep up with their classmates has been adopted by 30 states. And we are going to need the other 20 states to help by adopting it, too. This is a challenge to the private sector.
Last Veterans Day, Jill Biden and I went to Yankee Stadium to join an Iraq veteran who lost an arm in combat, and he threw out the first pitch. We were with Yogi Berra. It was very cool. (Laughter.)
It was part of Major League Baseball’s “Welcome Back Veterans” program to support wounded veterans and to encourage baseball fans to learn how they can help, too.
So every business, large or small, can play a role. Maybe it’s offering services, pro bono, to a military family or veteran. Maybe it’s helping a military spouse or a veteran develop their job skills and find a job. Maybe it’s hiring them -- because you know the discipline and dedication needed to succeed in the military are the same traits that any business would want in their employees. Or maybe it’s speaking out against abusive practices, like the predatory lenders who target military families -- and we know that needs to stop.
This is a challenge to community-based organizations.
One of the great lessons of recent years is that you don’t need to be a military expert to help. You don’t necessarily need to build something new to help. You can keep doing what you’re already doing and connect your work to the priorities of military families.
Consider the Sierra Club, which partnered with the NMFA to create Operation Purple -- summer camps that have made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of military kids. Or my favorite, Sesame Street, which has partnered with the USO to reach more than 100,000 military families and helped kids cope with some very challenging situations.
There are so many organizations with skills and interests that can be shared with military families, and we need to get them involved.
This is a challenge to every community in America.
Yes, it’s easier when you live near a military base. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, for example, near Fort Bragg, I learned about a baby shower that the community threw for 1,000 expectant military moms. Now, that’s a lot of diapers, we know. (Laughter.)
But even in communities without a base, there are so many ways to reach out. After all, most military families, as you know, live off base. They’re our neighbors. The vast majority of military children attend public schools. They’re our children’s classmates. And many of our National Guardsmen and Reservists don’t live anywhere near a base. They’re teachers and doctors and police officers in virtually every community across our country.
That’s why, last Veteran’s Day, Jill and I also helped launch Mission Serve, the national network that brings civilian and military service groups together not only to help support troops and veterans and their families, but to encourage communities to tap the talents and skills of our military families and veterans.
There are just so many partnerships waiting to be forged.
So ultimately, this is a challenge to every American, because everyone can do something, whether it’s reaching out to a local family or supporting an organization serving families or sharing your skills or being a voice in your community or just saying, “Thank you.” Even small things send a big message. They send our answer to that military mom who wrote me asking that we never forget or ignore our military families.
And how can we forget families like the Banks and their young son Willie? A few years ago, when Willie was just four, his father, who was a major in the Army, died of cancer. And then just a year later, his mom, also a soldier, deployed to Iraq. And Willie and his baby sister, Talana, went to live with relatives. It hasn’t been easy.
But one of the things that helps Willie get through the hard times are the gifts his father left for him. Knowing that he would not be there to raise his son, Willie’s father wrote him a series of letters, to be opened on his birthdays as he grew up.
They include life messages and lessons, and words of encouragement like, “Be a man of your word and never break a promise. Put your family first. You can do all the things you set your mind to. I’m proud of you.” And you’re wonderful -- going to be a wonderful young man.
And today, Willie is 10. And when Operation Homefront named him this year’s Military Child of the Year, I was honored to welcome him to the White House. And let me tell you, his father would be proud. Willie is such a wonderful little man. He helps take care of his sister. He loves math and science and he helps other students in his classes. He’s helped his mom prepare for her next change of station. He’s a little guy, but he’s got big dreams. And he wants to go to West Point and become a general in the Army. And he also wants to play in the NFL. (Laughter.)
Willie’s story and all the stories I’ve shared today are in the end a challenge to all Americans. After all their sacrifices, after all they’ve done for us, will we keep faith with these families? Will we stand by these spouses? Will we help these children realize their dreams? As individuals, as a nation, I believe we must. And I certainly believe that we can.
And it won’t be easy. It’s going to take many years. It’s going to require a great deal of patience, as you all know. But if Americans respond to this challenge; if we mobilize every segment of society; if we work together; if we hold ourselves to the same high standard of excellence that our military families live by every day, then I know we can succeed. I know we can realize our vision of an America that truly supports and engages our military families not just now, but for decades to come.
And I can promise you this today, this will remain one of my defining missions as First Lady.
And I thank you all for the work that you do every day to turn our vision into reality. Thank you all so much. (Applause.)
1:01 P.M. EDT