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The White House

Remarks by the First Lady upon return of the USNS Comfort and USS Eisenhower

Office of the First Lady
For Immediate Release                                                                   July 31, 2009

Norfolk Naval Base
Norfolk, Virginia
12:42 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
MRS. OBAMA: I am delighted to be here in Norfolk today to welcome home so many heroes. Welcome home! (Applause.)
Thank you Admiral Tidd and Captain Negus for your kind words. And even more importantly, thank you for your service and leadership as commanders of the Carrier Strike Group 8 and the Continuing Promise 2009 mission.
I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Negus's wife Afifi, just now in the photo line, beautiful red dress -- and I know that she represents all of the military spouses who are thrilled to have their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and grandchildren back home. Isn't that right? (Applause.)
I would also like to thank Admiral Harvey, Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, and Vice Admiral Williams, Commander of the U.S. Second Fleet. You are role models for all of us in our commitment to excellence and your dedication to your country and to your sailors.
And I would like to recognize Virginia's First Lady and my dear friend, Anne Holton. (Applause.) Anne and I have become kind of close comrades over the past few years and this is my second trip to the state in little over a week -- I'm hanging out in Virginia a lot. And one of the perks of coming here is that I get to see Anne. And it is wonderful to see you again, thank you for your commitment to this country, and our hugs and blessings go out to your family, as well.
I am honored, deeply honored to be here as we welcome home the crew of the United States Naval Ship Comfort and the sailors who deployed with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is a happy day for the community of Norfolk and the families of these brave men and women. We are standing here among heroes -- military, civilian, American, and foreign.
The Comfort embodies our values by changing lives around the world. The Eisenhower defends our values in the world's most dangerous places. To the nearly 6,000 sailors who deployed with the Eisenhower Strike Group to Afghanistan and the Middle East and are returning to their home ports, we thank you for your service. Each of you have courageously served our country and demonstrated your commitment to upholding America's highest ideals. Your service is emblematic of the values we hold most dear.
And to the crew of the Comfort, with the help of the Department of Defense, the State Department, the USAID, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the health ministries of seven different countries you sailed through rough waters and calm seas, you met people from all walks of life, you healed, you helped and gave hope and represented the best of America's humanitarian efforts. There's a saying that "a ship in harbor is safe -- but that is not what ships are built for." Well, the Comfort may have been built as an oil tanker, but as soon as those red crosses were painted on, it realized its full potential, and that is to bring comfort to those in need, to bring hope to the hopeless, to bring healing to the sick, and security to the insecure.
The Comfort's history is an important part of this nation's story. She's always been there when she was needed most, and her work was made possible by you -- the men and women who served the call. During those tragic days following September 11th, the Comfort was moored in New York and was a haven for relief -- for the workers and the survivors. For those who had just suffered unimaginable terror, her white tower and red crosses were a beacon of strength and compassion on the changed horizon.
During the rains and floods of Katrina and Rita, the Comfort brought hospital beds and shelter to the homeless, the tired, and the weary. She was the light in the storm, a place people could call home after they had lost their own. In some of the darkest hours of American history, she did not fail to live up to the promise of her name: Comfort.
But this ship has done more than just provide help to people here at home. It has also offered its services to those who suffer beyond our shores. For its most recent mission, Continuing Promise 2009, the Comfort brought medical and dental care along with engineering assistance and training programs to countries throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and South America. Doctors treated patients, Seabees built schools, veterinarians cared for animals, and the Air Force band delighted local audiences. The crew formed friendships with each other and with the local residents. More than 100,000 patients were treated on this mission, 1,600 surgeries were conducted, 135,000 prescriptions were filled, and more than 300 pallets of aid were delivered.
But the impact of your efforts didn't end when the Comfort left port. Your legacy continues through the learning that happens in the classrooms that were built. It lives on in the young mothers who learned how to properly care for their first child, in the town that now has fresh drinking water. The things that many of us in the United States take for granted are the things that are most needed in the communities that the Comfort visits: eyeglasses, surgeries for cataracts and people with orthopedic conditions, immunizations, access to vitamins and prescriptions, and basic dental care.
But for all of the serious needs you met, one of my favorite stories is simply about your grace during this mission. I was told that during the Comfort's sojourn in Haiti, the Air Force Band performed with the local St. Pierre Chorale of Port-au-Prince. The band played the stirring hymn "Amazing Grace" and the choir sang the lyrics in French. This union of instruments and voices, of nations and peoples, of histories and hopefulness, truly represents the mission of Continuing Promise 2009 and the humanitarian role of our military. At the core of the chords floating through the hot Haitian air was a message of hope for humanity and of camaraderie with your fellow man.
And my husband often speaks of the ties that bind all people together in the 21st century. At a time when danger and opportunity spreads freely across borders, we know that the security and prosperity of all people is shared. So when the Comfort helps folks meet their basic needs abroad, then we advance the cause of security and prosperity everywhere around the world.
And we're also advancing our values in the most fundamental way that we can -- by living them through deeds as well as words. This is the spirit of service that the crew of the Comfort exemplifies. And we know that it is a spirit that defines those who were on a different kind of mission on board the Eisenhower, as well.
The crew of the Eisenhower has served in support of our missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world. Its planes have flown over 2,000 sorties over Afghanistan. Its ships patrolled the waters for pirates, and aided the heroic rescue of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips off the coast of Somalia earlier this year. Its servicemen and women have demonstrated the courage, the competence, and commitment of the great President and General whose namesake they carry. And they have proven that this generation of American service-members is as great as any that has come before.
We know that the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States have borne an enormous responsibility for their country, and for the peace and security of the world. Now, all Americans must do more to meet our responsibility to those who serve us. And when I talk about those who serve us, I don't just mean those who are wearing uniforms. When a service-member is deployed abroad, we know that their entire family makes a tremendous sacrifice.
That's why this President and this administration have committed to relieving some of that strain that is placed on our troops and their families. The President's budget reflects that commitment through pay raises for men and women in uniform; it reflects it through additional permanent forces in the Army and Marine Corps to reduce the stress of long deployments; it reflects it in support of military spouse career development; it reflects it in improved military housing; and financial assistance to military families who have to sell their homes during the housing crisis and are facing losses.
These investments build on the work of commanders and service members, military spouses and volunteers, professional staff, and community leaders who have helped military life become more family friendly, and they've been doing it for decades.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Fleet and Family Support Centers -- centers like Hampton Roads, that serve more than 259,000 active duty and retired military and their family members with everything from counseling to parenting skills, from financial management to relocation assistance. These are steps that we're taking to make life better for those who serve.
But providing our military and their families with the support that they deserve requires more than good government, it requires active citizens. And this is why I've made it a personal priority to ask all Americans to join the cause of supporting our military families. (Applause.) We must all remember that when our troops are deployed their families are left behind and faced with an entirely different set of duties.
Mothers who tuck their kids in at night and struggle to answer the question, "When is Daddy coming home?" Fathers who wonder how they'll keep their families together, while they juggle ballet recitals and homework and mowing the lawn, all while their wives are serving our country abroad. Children who have to tell their dad about their home-run via teleconference, because he missed yet another softball season. Spouses and parents caring for a wounded warrior or struggling to move forward after losing a loved one.
They have American flags waving on their front porch, they have yellow ribbons on their cars, and Blue and Gold Stars in their windows. These people are our neighbors, they live right down the block; they're our colleagues who sit right down the hall; they're our kids' playmates and the people we see every day on the train to work or in the line at the grocery store. They are all around us. And I have seen the sacrifices of our military families up close. They are the quiet heroes who represent the best in our country.
But yet, according to a recent survey by Blue Star Families, 94 percent of our military families don't feel like their communities know of their struggles. That probably isn't the case in this community, a community like Norfolk -- but in communities without a military presence it's easier to lose sight of those who serve and their families.
So as we welcome home the men and women of the Comfort and the Eisenhower from deployment, and as we celebrate their reunion with their families, let us make a pledge right here today to honor their service by doing more to serve them in our own communities. Let's do simple things, like offer to help with a carpool. Simple things, like bringing over dinner. Simple things, like being a shoulder to cry on or a friend to talk to, be a neighbor, be a friend.
If you own a business or run a company, or help run a business or a company you can help a military spouse get a job or keep a job despite a move across the country, so he or she can continue to build a meaningful career as they sacrifice for our nation. If you have a professional skill such as being a lawyer, a mental health professional, or an accountant, you can provide pro bono services to military families who need your help. If you have the opportunity, just reach out and simply say thank you -- sometimes that goes a long way -- say thank you to the spouses and the children of our military members and thank them for their sacrifice because it is real and it is powerful.
Let's all take the time to be aware of the heroes right in our midst. And by following the examples of the men and women we honor here today, we can all be emissaries of comfort to someone right in our own community.
I want to thank you all so much for allowing me to share in this very special occasion. I told some of the admirals and the commanders that I spoke with earlier that one of the most powerful things that I have been able to do in this role is to get to meet our military. And every single time I meet someone in uniform I am more proud of my country, because people are sacrificing and serving with a level of dignity and honor that we should be proud of. So I will use every ounce of my power in this position to highlight the sacrifices that you make and to rally our country around you. And it won't stop today.
We are grateful to you. We are proud of you. And we are so glad that you're home. Thank you. (Applause.)
12:58 P.M. EDT