Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden at Joining Forces Impact Pledge Announcement

April 30, 2014

DR. BIDEN: (Applause.) Thank you, Chrissandra. Wow, you are quite impressive, isn't she? (Applause.) Thank you for your service, and keep up the good work in school. And I love the fact that you love your teachers. (Laughter.)

Chrissandra's story is a lot like the stories I've heard from other military children and families I've met when I visited bases all around the world -- moving from school to school, making new friends, joining new sports teams, and, despite it all -– just like Chrissandra -- continuing to excel in school. And I'm always impressed by their resilience and their strength.

But no matter how resilient our military families are, they face challenges that most Americans do not have to shoulder: sending their loved ones into harm's way, uprooting their lives and starting over again and again and again. And that is why what all of you in this room are doing is so important. You are stepping up and working together to support our service members and their families.

When the First Lady and I started Joining Forces three years ago, we knew Americans would answer our call, but we had no idea how much they would step up. In our workplaces, our schools, and in our communities, what we have seen is inspiring. All of you in this room are a testament to that. Every one of you –- the nonprofits, the philanthropies and the foundations here today -– are doing critical work to support our troops and their families.

One example is the National Math and Science Initiative, or NMSI, which Chrissandra just talked about. There are military children in every school district in the country. They need a safe and nurturing school environment. They deserve access to the highest-quality teaching and education. As a teacher and Blue Star mom, this is particularly close to my heart.

NMSI is improving the caliber of science, technology, engineering, and math courses at our military-serving schools. As a result of partnering with business and foundations, NMSI has been so successful that since its inception in 2010, it has expanded from just four schools in two states to 71 military-impacted high schools in 18 states today. And that's just incredible. (Applause.) It means that thousands of military children are getting access to AP courses, challenging themselves and preparing them for college and careers. That is the power of a nurturing school and a caring teacher.

The First Lady and I have met many teachers and administrators who are making things easier and better for military children in their classrooms -- teachers who arrange parent-teacher conferences by Skype so deployed parents can participate, school administrators who make sure parents have access to a copy of a student's records when they transfer, or teachers like the one in my granddaughter Natalie's classroom who hung up a photo of my son's deployment unit so the whole class would know that Natalie's daddy was at war. That photo on that wall meant the world to Natalie, and it meant the world, really, to all of our family.

These teachers and all the other individuals and groups across this country who are supporting our troops and their family are showing all Americans that there are countless ways to help, some large and many small, but all important -- and I can tell you from personal experience, all appreciated.

So thank you all for everything that you do. We have made incredible progress over the last three years through Joining Forces, but we know that there's so much more that we can do.

And I can think of no one better to lead the way than my friend and our First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA: Well, hello, everyone.


MRS. OBAMA: You guys look good. (Laughter.) I like that you're here.

I want to start, of course, by thanking Jill, not just for that kind introduction but for her incredible leadership and partnership with me on Joining Forces. It has just been a delight, and we have had a phenomenal month and a phenomenal three years. So thanks, Jill. Thanks for being right there with me every step of the way.

And of course, I have to acknowledge this phenomenal young woman, Chrissandra. I want to thank her for sharing her story. Chrissandra, she represents so many kids out there. And Jill and I have had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of them, and we are just blown away by their poise, their grace, their stamina, their persistence. Her family is the face of service to our country. And if anybody ever wonders why we do this, it's because of families like theirs.

Now, before we get started, I want to take a moment to recognize someone who has been vital to the success of Joining Forces this year. I'm going to embarrass him, but Colonel Rich Morales –- where is Rich? (Applause.) There he is. (Applause.) Well, that response says it all, but I still have a few things to say. (Laughter.)

Today is Rich's last day as our executive director for Joining Forces. And as you all know, over the years, we have been blessed to have some of our incredibly talented and dedicated servicemembers to lead this effort, and Rich has been no exception.

Let me tell you a little bit about him, if you don't know. He's a proud West Point grad. He has served our country in Iraq and the Balkans. And he has provided such wonderful spirit and leadership for this initiative this year. He is a true joy. And let me just say this: He's still the only one on my staff who stands up when I walk in the room, and I'm going to miss that. (Laughter.)

But we know that far beyond his role with us, or with our military, his most important job is being a husband to his high school sweetheart, Christy, and a father to their adorable four-year-old son, Matthew. Now, when Rich leaves here, he's off to do more great stuff. He's going to finish his PhD -- as if he hasn't done enough -- and then he will serve as an Army brigade commander at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

So, Rich, I'm going to miss you. You have been amazing this year. You've gotten so much done. And your spirit and your smile and your passion has just been a pleasure to work with. So let's give Rich one last big round of applause. (Applause.) I hope you're duly embarrassed. (Laughter.)

And with that, I'd like to thank everyone at the Council on Foundations and all of the members of the White Oak steering committee for their leadership in organizing this event. I also want to thank everyone at the Red Cross not only for hosting us today, but for the incredible work you do every day. Red Cross has a special place in my heart because I served on the board in Chicago. We have seen the vital role you play for our country over these past few days as you all are working around the clock to help communities in Arkansas and all across the South and the Midwest recovering from a string of devastating tornados. So we are especially grateful, as we always are, for your extraordinary efforts, especially in times like these.

And finally, I want to thank all of you here today -- the philanthropic and nonprofit leaders who are stepping up to support our troops, our veterans, and their families.

A couple of weeks ago, I was once again reminded about how important all of this work is that we do on behalf of our amazing men and women because I was watching something on TV when one of those surprise videos of a soldier returning home from a long deployment came on the screen. We've all seen those moving moments: The father bear-hugging his family at mid-court at a game, the little boy with tears in his eyes sprinting into his mother's arms in the front of his classroom.

And I don't know about you, but I could watch those videos all day, and I know that's true for many of you. These scenes tug at our heartstrings and often move us to tears like no other. Moments like these always make us feel good, and they remind us of the sacrifice our military families are making for our country every single day.

But for me, having spent so much time getting to know these wonderful military families, these heart-felt moments raise so many questions and so many concerns. What happens after the cameras are turned off? After the rest of us have gone on with our lives, what's next for these families? Will that father find a job once he leaves the service? And if he does, will it be a good one, one that allows him to support his family? Will he have the support he needs to deal with any mental or physical challenges that he may face?

And what about the families? Will his spouse be able to pursue her own career when the family is transferred across the country again? How will the kids adjust to yet another set of changes –- new home, new school, new friends, figuring out how to keep up with coursework?

You see, for most of us as Americans, that surprise homecoming, that feel-good moment, that's the happy ending to the story. But for these families, it's really just the beginning. In so many ways, their journey is just getting started. And that's why, when they come home, it is up to the rest of us to be there for them. After everything they've done for us, these families should never have to bear these burdens alone.

And that's why, three years ago, Jill and I started Joining Forces. We wanted to rally all Americans to honor and support our troops, our veterans and their families. And as I mentioned, all month long, we have been celebrating our third anniversary with a series of events to highlight the overwhelming outpouring of support we have seen from across the country.

American businesses have hired and trained more than half a million veterans and military spouses. Teachers and administrators are reaching out to military children in their classrooms. Legislators have come together in almost every state to propose or pass legislation to help our vets and military spouses get the professional licenses and credentials they need –- and transfer them across state lines. Associations of medical schools and social workers and nurses are training their providers to better diagnose and treat issues like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. And, of course, Americans from across the country have stepped up to volunteer more than 22 million hours right in their own communities to honor our military families.

So we have come a long way in three years. But this anniversary isn't just a celebration -- it's also a call to action. Because right now, we are in a pivotal moment for our military families and for our country. By the end of this year, after 13 long years, our war in Afghanistan will finally be over. More and more -– yes, that's worth some applause. (Applause.) And more and more of our newest veterans, the 9/11 generation, will be hanging up their uniforms and transitioning to civilian life.

So in the years ahead, there will be fewer news stories and homecoming videos, fewer community parades for our military and their families. And without these celebrations and reminders, it's going to be easy for us to forget the burden they've shouldered after more than a decade of war. It's going to be easy to forget how, long after they come home, these families will continue to deal with employment and financial difficulties, or post-traumatic stress, or for some, the emotional cost of losing a loved one.

So we cannot allow ourselves to forget their service to this country. So that means we've got to get moving right now. We've got to show our veterans and military families that our country is there for them not just while they're in uniform, but for the long haul.

And that's what today is all about. Because whenever our country has needed to tackle an issue like this, we've looked not only to businesses and governments for solutions, but we look to our generous philanthropic organizations as well. Throughout our history, we've seen donors and foundations step up again and again to help us overcome the challenges we've faced as a country. Whether it's building schools in the segregated south, funding AIDS research, or addressing poverty and homelessness, our philanthropic institutions have always played a huge role in creating positive change.

That's why I am thrilled to announce that the Council on Foundations is continuing that tradition by extending that same kind of energy and support to our troops, veterans and their families long after our wars are over. They're bringing together benefactors from across the country to create a stronger national funding structure for groups that support our military families.

It's called the Veterans Philanthropy Exchange, and it's going to allow these groups to do a number of things -- share best practices, create new resources, recruit even more donors to support our military families in the years ahead. Many of these groups have been supporting these causes for years, and they had already committed $62 million to military families by 2019. But they know that that is not enough if we're truly going to meet the needs of these families. We're going to have to do more.

And so, today, they're announcing that they're pledging $102 million in new funding toward our military families over the next five years. So this is a huge deal. That's worthy of a round of applause. (Applause.)

And I want to take a moment to thank not only the Council on Foundations, but the four main organizers of this effort: The McCormick Foundation, The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, The Blue Shield of California Foundation, and The Lincoln Community Foundation. So again, let's give them all another round of applause. Yes! (Applause.) Well done.

But we also know there's more work to do. So in the coming months and years, we need even more donors to join this effort so that we can fully support all those wonderful nonprofits and community groups that do such wonderful work for our military families every day. And we have seen the effect that this kind of financial support can have on organizations working on the ground to help our servicemembers, veterans and their families.

Philanthropic leaders like so many of you here in this room have helped to fund efforts like the National Military Family's Association -- they give college scholarships to military spouses. And we've seen it in the peer mentors and support groups that are supported from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. And there's a wonderful handbook for caregivers for our wounded warriors that is developed from Blue Star Families.

And behind each of these efforts –- and there are many, many more -- are thousands of stories -- stories of caregivers who felt less isolated after they spoke with a peer, stories of survivors who are no longer alone in their grief, spouses and children who have better opportunities for their future. Those are the stories behind Joining Forces.

This effort is so much bigger than me or Jill or even events like this one. It's about the military families who live in communities all across this country. And it's about the veterans who have given so much to all of us –- veterans like Jennifer Crane.

Jenn enlisted in the military when she was just 17. Her first day of basic training was September 11, 2001, and that day, a drill sergeant told her class that they would be going to war. A little more than a year later, she was in Afghanistan. And just three weeks into her deployment, one of her best friends was killed, and Jenn was assigned to funeral detail. A month later, her base was attacked, and she saw the horrors of war –- images that stayed with her long after she returned home in 2003.

And when she got back, she says she began to feel "totally isolated from society" –- perfectly normal feeling. She was experiencing all of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress -- nightmares, mood swings, depression –- but she just didn't know it yet. Unable to cope, Jenn began self-medicating. She turned to drugs and couldn't hold down a job.

Eventually, she realized she needed help, so she went to the VA and they diagnosed her with PTSD and connected her with a therapist. But Jenn still struggled. At one point, she was living out of her car and ended up getting arrested. That's when she was connected with an organization called Give an Hour, which matches veterans with mental health professionals who donate their services free of charge to our veterans.

Through Give an Hour, Jenn found a therapist who helped her manage her post-traumatic stress, and helped her to slowly build a successful life for herself. And today, years later, Jenn is a licensed practical nurse. She is a home owner. She is the mother of a beautiful six-year-old daughter and an adorable baby boy. And she spends much of her free time volunteering to encourage other veterans to reach out for help as well.

Jenn credits her therapist and the folks at Give an Hour for saving her life. Jenn is here today –- Jenn? (Applause.) So proud of you.

But that's not the end of the story. Jenn knows that she'll have to deal with these issues for the rest of her life. And that's why we need to do everything we can to support and sustain more efforts like Give an Hour well into the future. Because an organization like Give an Hour isn't a one-stop solution. It's a vital part of a much larger constellation of support for our veterans and military families.

So we also need organizations like NMSI for our military kids. We need organizations like Blue Star Families for caregivers and family members. No single group, no single grant can do the job on its own. It's going to take all of us.

It's going to take nonprofits doing the work on the ground. It's going to take money, resources. So we need more donors and philanthropic institutions to get involved. It's going to take businesses and government doing their part. And it's going to take all of us as neighbors and as citizens to understand who the military families are in our own communities, because there will never be enough organizations or institutions to reach every single military family. But there are more than 300 million Americans, and it is up to us to step up and fill the gap.

So if you're watching this at any point in time, if you work with a veteran, if you worship with a military family, if there is a Gold Star classmate at your child's school, find a way to reach out. Pick up a shift in the carpool. Volunteer at the VFW, or donate money to a charity that serves these families. But do something to show these families that we're here for them, now and in the years ahead.

That's what Joining Forces is about. It's about reaching out to these heroes. Because we know they make our community stronger, they make our businesses more productive, they make our schools more vibrant. It's about turning the feelings we get from those wonderful homecoming videos into real, concrete actions that lift up our military families and show them how much they mean to us. And it's about doing it not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

And so I want to thank all of the incredible philanthropic and nonprofit leaders for taking this huge step toward making that a reality. And, of course, to all the military families here today and across the country, I just want you to know that this is just a first step. We're going to get more donors involved in this effort. We're going to keep reaching out to people all across the country so that no matter where you live or work, you will be surrounded by a country that truly honors your service and your sacrifice, now and in the years and decades ahead. That is our pledge to you.

So thank you all again for your tremendous service to our nation. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden at Joining Forces Impact Pledge Announcement Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321879

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