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Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Citizens Medals

February 15, 2013

The President. Thank you very much, everybody. Please, please have a seat. Well, it is a pleasure to welcome some of our Nation's finest citizens here to the people's house. And let me be the first to congratulate each of you and your family members for the receipt of the highest honor a civilian can receive: the Citizens Medal.

We host a lot of events at the White House, but I have to admit this is one of my favorites, because it's a moment when, as a people, we get to recognize some extraordinary men and women who have gone above and beyond for their country and for their fellow citizens, often without fanfare, often with not a lot of attention, very rarely for any profit. You do it because it's the right thing to do, because you want to give back. And today we honor you, we celebrate you, and most of all, we have a chance to say thank you. Because all of us—are what the rest of us aspire to be.

In America, we have the benefit of living in this big and diverse nation. We're home to 315 million people who come from every background, who worship every faith, who hold every single point of view. But what binds us together, what unites us is, a single sacred word: citizen.

It's a word that, as I said in my State of the Union Address, doesn't just describe our nationality or our legal status, the fact that we hold a passport. It defines our way our life. It captures our belief in something bigger than ourselves: our willingness to accept certain obligations to one another and to embrace the idea that we're all in this together, that out of many, we are one. It's the thing that de Tocqueville noticed about America when he first came to visit: these folks participate, they get involved, they have a point of view; they don't just wait for somebody else to do something, they go out there and do it, and they join, and they become part of groups, and they mobilize, and they organize.

That's who we are; that's in our DNA. That's what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. We've all got busy lives. We've got bills to pay. We've got kids to carpool, errands to get done. And in the midst of all the running around, it would be easy and even understandable for folks to just focus on themselves, to worry about our own lives, to look down the street and see a neighbor in need and say, "I'd like to help, but I've got problems of my own." To look across town at a community that's in despair and say, "That's just too big a challenge for us to be able to take on."

That's not who we are. That's not what we do. That's not what built this country. In this country, we look out for one another. We get each other's backs, especially in times of hardship or challenge. It's part of the reason why applications to AmeriCorps are at an alltime high. That's why volunteering in America is at the highest level it's been in years. And I know that makes Harris proud to hear.

Now, Harris Wofford has devoted his entire life to creating opportunities for Americans to serve. And the reason it's such a privilege for me to share the stage with him and all the others who are participating here today, is because you've taken commitment to a whole new level. Every day, you're out there righting wrongs, healing hurts, changing lives.

And when Janice Jackson was hit by a car at the age of 24, she was told by her doctors that the only thing she would ever move again were her shoulders. After suffering an injury like that, nobody would have faulted Janice for just focusing on herself. But as she recovered, and she regained her strength, she resolved to give some of that strength to others in need. Janice said that "From a wheelchair, I decided to devote my life to women with disabilities to tell them that even though you have limitations, you also have abilities." And every day, through her mentorship and through her advocacy, that's exactly what she's doing.

When Adam Burke returned from Iraq, he had more than earned the right to just focus on himself. He had served our Nation with honor: a recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he received while rescuing a comrade from enemy fire. Because of that attack—because of the shrapnel that tore through his head and his legs—when Adam came home, he came home a wounded warrior, suffering from a traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder. But a few years later, Adam found himself back on the family farm, and he noticed that working the land was therapeutic. His coordination improved. He was able to put aside his cane. So he decided to use farming to help other veterans with similar injuries see similar benefits. And by starting Veterans Farm, he's doing that every day.

When Jeanne Manford learned that her son Morty had been badly beaten up at a gay rights demonstration, nobody would have faulted her for bringing him home, holding him close, just focusing on her child. This was back in 1972. There was a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol towards gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them. But instead, she wrote to the local newspaper and took to the streets with a simple message: No matter who her son was—no matter who he loved—she loved him and wouldn't put up with this kind of nonsense. And in that simple act, she inspired a movement and gave rise to a national organization that has given so much support to parents and families and friends and helped to change this country. We lost Jeanne last month, but her legacy carries on, every day, in the countless lives that she touched.

And then when Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D'Avino, Anne Marie Murphy, when they showed up for work at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14 of last year, they expected a day like any other, doing what was right for their kids, spent a chilly morning readying classrooms and welcoming young students. They had no idea that evil was about to strike. And when it did, they could have taken shelter by themselves. They could have focused on their own safety, on their own well-being. But they didn't. They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care. They gave all they had for the most innocent and helpless among us.

And that's what we honor today: the courageous heart, the selfless spirit, the inspiring actions of extraordinary Americans, extraordinary citizens.

We are a nation of 315 million people. Out of all these folks, around 6,000 were nominated for this medal. And today you're the ones receiving it not just for what you do, but for what you represent: for the shining example that you set every single day and the inspiration that you give each of us as fellow citizens, including your President.

So congratulations to the recipients. And now I would like our military aide to read the citations.

[At this point, Lt. Col. Owen G. Ray, USA, Army Aide to the President, read the citations and the President presented the medals, assisted by Maj. Gary Marlowe, USAF, Air Force Aide to the President.]

The President. Let me close by just saying a few words of thanks: first of all, to Wendy and all the people at the Corporation for National and Community Service, thank you for all that you do to make our communities and our country stronger. We're very grateful.

To those who nominated these outstanding individuals, thank you for taking the time to share their stories. The competition was stiff. And your words gave life to their work.

To all the family and friends who are here celebrating with the winners, thank you for the love and support that you provide to them every single day, because they couldn't do what they do unless somebody had that love and support for them. I know the awardees would agree that this honor belongs not just to themselves, but to everybody who supports them.

And finally, to the winners of this year's Citizens Medal, we want to congratulate you once again. A special note just to the families who are here from Sandy Hook: We are so blessed to be with you. I've gotten to know many of you during the course of some very difficult weeks. And your courage and love for each other and your communities shines through every single day. And we could not be more blessed and grateful for your loved ones who gave everything they had on behalf of our kids.

On behalf of a grateful nation, thanks to all of you for showing us what it means to be a citizen of this country that we love. Hopefully, we will all draw inspiration from this and remember why it is that we're lucky to be living in the greatest nation on Earth. Thank you all for coming and enjoy the reception.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to former Sen. Harris L. Wofford; Janice Y. Jackson, creator and program director, Women Embracing Abilities Now (W.E.A.N.); and Wendy Spencer, chair, Corporation for National and Community Service.

Barack Obama, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Citizens Medals Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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