Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City

September 23, 2010

In coming together this week, you're forming new partnerships, making new commitments...and challenging each other to do even more.

And at this year's meeting, President Clinton has asked you to address a challenge that I'd like to talk about today. It's one of your key action areas for this week…and that is harnessing human potential.

In other words, as you endeavor to do more...to serve more communities...to lift more families...to save more lives...how can you find new ways to tap the skills and talents of more people?

How can you create and train new leaders…here in America and around the world?

How can you, as President Clinton put it earlier this week, "…get more people involved in our common endeavors"?

In pondering these questions, I'm here today to ask you to consider an issue that is near and dear to my heart as First Lady…and one that I believe is vitally important for just about everything you're working to accomplish.

And that is the challenges faced by America's veterans and military families – and all they have to offer – particularly as they transition to civilian life.

Now, at first glance, this issue may seem too uniquely American in scope for such a global audience here at CGI.

But right now, the human potential of America's veterans and military families is both vast, and woefully under-utilized…and that's not just an issue for those individuals, or for this country. It also significantly impacts what you and so many others are trying to achieve…not just here in America, but around the world.

Now, as First Lady, I've had the privilege of meeting America's men and women in uniform on bases, in hospitals, and in communities across this country.

And I always come away from these visits not just with a sense of pride, and gratitude…but with a sense of awe.

I'm awed by their courage and sacrifice.

I'm awed by their commitment to this country and the standard of excellence they uphold.

And while most folks share my respect and admiration for their service, many have no idea what that service actually entails.

Many still don't know the full power of their human potential.

But just consider for a moment the kind of work that they do:

Members of our military master state of the art technologies – some of the most advanced information, and medical, and communications systems in the world.

They run the world's most complex operations – distributing supplies to thousands of locations…moving tons of equipment halfway across the globe.

They oversee hundreds of their colleagues – recruiting the top talent and inspiring folks from diverse backgrounds to succeed as a team.

Many of them are barely old enough to vote, yet they shoulder more responsibility than many CEOs, undertaking missions where there's no margin for error…where the bottom line is often a matter of life or death.

These are highly valuable, highly transferable, highly marketable skills…skills that I know many businesses, including those represented here today, are desperate to find.

Yet the fact is that right now, more than 150,000 recent veterans are still struggling to find jobs.

Now, it's true that we're facing difficult economic times. And we're working hard to get all Americans back to work after a tough recession.

But our veterans face a unique set of challenges as they leave military service.

In one survey, more than three-quarters of veterans reported having difficulty translating the expertise they gained in the military into a resume that makes sense to civilians.

And 61 percent of employers admitted that they didn't fully understand the skills our veterans had to offer.

So often, veterans find themselves becoming under-employed – settling for jobs that pay less than they deserve…jobs that don't fully harness their talents.

Or they find themselves out of work entirely for months on end.

And that can take a real toll.

Now, America's servicemen and women are resilient, so they don't always show it. And they're proud, so they don't always talk about it.

But it's hard to spend years serving your country, only to find that the value of that service isn't fully understood.

It's hard to give so much, for so long, for a cause greater than yourself, only to come home and find that there's nowhere you quite fit in.

And let's not forget that when America's troops are called to serve – their families serve too.

That means spouses taking on the work of both parents…running their households and raising their kids all alone, often while trying to get an education or working fulltime themselves.

And they face employment challenges of their own, because it's hard to build seniority at a job when you have to move every couple of years.

It's hard to sustain a career when you have to keep meeting new state licensing and certification requirements.

It's hard to impress employers who often view a resume with multiple jobs as a red flag rather than a reality of military life.

But somehow, they still manage to juggle all their responsibilities – often while helping other military families do the same.

Many military spouses help lead Family Readiness Groups – or FRGs. These are support organizations that serve hundreds of families at a time.

And let me just take a moment to paint a picture for you of what a day in the life of an FRG leader might look like.

She might spend her morning working on a communications strategy – coordinating the unit's website, newsletter and Facebook page, so everyone has the latest information about their loved ones.

Over lunch, she might review the FRG's budget and craft a spending plan for the upcoming year.

In the afternoon, she'll meet with healthcare representatives to learn about new counseling resources for families. Then she'll meet with teams of volunteers to coordinate upcoming events.

The evening might bring news that the deployed unit has sustained a casualty. So she'll work late into the night rounding up support for the affected family, and notifying other families on the base about what's happened.

Now, if she were doing this same kind of work at a company, she might be called CEO…or COO….or Senior Executive.

Perhaps she'd have a nice office…a big salary…and a line at the top of her resume that any employer would understand and respect.

So why should things be any different just because she's not drawing a paycheck?

And let's be clear – our veterans and military spouses aren't just well qualified for jobs in the private sector. They're an asset in the non-profit world as well.

Whether it's an earthquake in Haiti…a Tsunami in East Asia…a flood in Pakistan…or a Hurricane in New Orleans…America's men and women in uniform are often some of the first people on the scene.

They go on regular humanitarian missions throughout the world, providing everything from food aid, to medical care, to help with construction.

And their titles – Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Coastguardsmen – those don't begin to describe the full range of roles that they play.

During a typical tour of duty, they're called to act as diplomats, social workers, mediators, and educators.

They work with governments and NGOs…with local businesses and civilians…and with their counterparts from militaries around the world.

And again, let's not forget about their spouses, and the countless hours of volunteer work they're doing on top of everything else back home.

At just one Army base – Fort Drum, in upstate New York – military spouses logged more than 85,000 volunteer hours in the course of a single year.

And I'll never forget the couple I met outside the Quantico Marine base in Virginia.

They were helping organize the Toys for Tots drive, a nationwide effort by the Marines Corps Reserve to distribute Christmas gifts to millions of children in need.

And that couple spent so much time volunteering that they wound up moving their family's Christmas tree into the volunteer center so they'd actually have a chance to enjoy it.

So the fact is that America's veterans and military spouses have years of experience and training doing precisely the kind of work that all of you are doing every day across the globe.

Are you building roads or schools or shelters? They've done that.

Are you establishing health clinics in remote parts of the world? They've done that too.

Are you trying to recruit and manage teams of volunteers?

Are you working to get clean water into a village?

Are you trying to move people to safety in the wake of a natural disaster?

That's all in a day's work for these folks.

And that passion for serving…that commitment to helping others…that doesn't just disappear when they return to civilian life.

In a recent survey, 92 percent of veterans reported that serving their communities was important to them.

And when asked what kind of service they wanted to do, 88 percent said they wanted to do disaster relief. 86 percent wanted to help at-risk youth. And 69 percent wanted to preserve our environment.

For these folks, service is the air they breathe. It's the reason they were put on this earth.

Many of them don't just want to serve for a certain number of years, or deployments – they want to make their whole life a tour of duty.

So given our veterans' and military spouses' unmatched experience and passion for service, you'd think they'd be the very first folks that non-profit organizations would tap when they're looking to hire the top talent.

But as in the private sector, too often, there's a disconnect.

Too often, we mistakenly view the non-profit sector and the military as two very different worlds, with different missions…different cultures…and different values.

We have this notion that folks who serve in the military just aren't the kind of folks who'd want to work at an NGO, and vice versa.

But the truth is that folks in both the military and non-profit worlds are passionately committed to causes larger than themselves.

Folks in both worlds willingly sacrifice their own safety, comfort, and financial well-being to help others.

And right now, across America and around the world, there are countless examples of veterans who are using their skills and experience to continue their service as civilians.

They're working in America's schools and communities as teachers, and coaches, and role models for our kids.

They're training for green jobs retrofitting homes and offices and conserving public lands.

One group of veterans even runs an organization called "Team Rubicon" that responds to natural disasters. They trek into some of the most remote areas of the world to provide medical aid to thousands of people in need.

The organization was founded after the earthquake in Haiti, when a former Marine named Jake Wood watched the devastation unfold on TV…and he thought to himself, "Jake, you're not in the Marines any more, but you have a special set of skills. You would be ashamed of yourself if you didn't try to use them to help people."

So it's clear that our veterans and military spouses have the skills and the will to serve and succeed in any environment…now it's up to us to give them the opportunity.

Now, my husband has been working hard to do that as President.

He's worked to fund a twenty-first century GI Bill which is helping nearly 300,000 veterans and their families get the education they need to fulfill their dreams.

He's made veterans hiring a top priority in the federal government, hiring nearly 33,000 veterans in the first half of this fiscal year alone – an increase of eight percent over last year.

Our Department of Defense has been working with states to streamline licensing requirements so that spouses don't have to reapply for professional credentials and take new tests every time they move.

And we're working to strengthen support programs and counseling services to help military spouses juggle their responsibilities to their employers and their families.

But as you all know, government can only do so much. And that's why I'm here today – to ask for your help.

Whatever you're looking for, whether it's technical expertise or management ability…whether you're trying to lift a struggling community, or boost your bottom line…I'm asking you to reach out and engage our veterans and military spouses.

I'm asking you to take advantage of their talent, their dedication, and their experience.

That might mean asking a veterans service organization to help your hiring managers translate military experience into civilian qualifications.

It might mean studying best practices in the military to see how you can expand career opportunities for wounded warriors and people with disabilities.

It might mean finding ways to make your workplace more military spouse-friendly – whether that's with more flexible work schedules or more portable jobs.

Or it might mean developing challenging, substantive volunteer opportunities – ones that help vets and military spouses build the professional skills and networks they need to compete.

Plenty of corporations and organizations are already leading the way in this respect.

In fact, tonight, the Department of Defense is awarding its 2010 Employer Support Freedom Awards. These awards recognize companies that support employees serving in the National Guard and Reserve.

One of the recipients was a company called Bill Bragg Plumbing, which has just five employees.

When someone is deployed, the company owner steps in to fill that person's duties.

And the company keeps in touch with that employee's family throughout their deployment, offering whatever kind of assistance and support they can provide.

Now if this little company can do all of that, then surely the national and international corporations and NGOs in this room can work harder to recruit and support vets and military families.

Surely, any company or non-profit organization of any size can do what it takes to benefit from their talent.

After all, hiring America's vets and military spouses isn't just about helping them…it's about how they can help you.

So I'm not asking you to do this out of the goodness of your heart…do it because it's good for your bottom line and the success of your organization.

But I'm not just here today to challenge all of you. In the spirit of CGI, I'm also here to make a commitment of my own.

If you'll do your part to engage and employ our veterans and military spouses…then I'll commit to doing my part to help you.

As part of my ongoing efforts to encourage folks to support our veterans and military families, I'll do my part to connect you with advocates and experts…and with resources throughout our government…from the Department of Labor to the Defense Department and the VA.

If you have questions about how a veteran's or spouse's skills fit with the jobs you have, we'll help you find the answers.

If your staff wants to better understand the challenges that vets and military spouses face – and how to address them – we'll connect you to the right people.

And I will use my platform as First Lady to bring folks together around this issue.

I'll work to spark not just a national conversation, but national action to give our vets and military spouses the opportunities they deserve.

And I am so grateful to be joined in these efforts by a truly wonderful partner. She's a Blue Star mom and a champion of our National Guard and Reserve families…my friend, Dr. Jill Biden.

We have both seen firsthand the potential that America's vets and military spouses have to offer.

And it goes far beyond their skills, training and experience.

I've seen that potential in the men and women I meet at our military hospitals…folks who are seriously wounded, but refuse to scale back their dreams.

They're making plans. They're reimagining their futures. They tell me they're not just going to walk again…they're going to run…and they're going to run marathons.

I've seen that potential in the spouses who say grace each night with that empty seat at the table…folks who answer all those questions about when mommy or daddy is coming home…never allowing their worry or fear to creep into their voice or shake their resolve.

This kind of potential is just too precious and unique to squander.

And for these extraordinary individuals, the story of their service doesn't end when they move off the base or hang up that uniform. Rather, that is just the beginning of the next chapter of their work to build a better America and a better world.

An Army veteran named Tom Tarantino put it best when he came to the White House for a meeting with staff members just last week.

He was talking about his experience transitioning from military to civilian life. And he said – and this is a quote: "When I left the service, I was looking for more than a paycheck…I was looking for a mission."

Ultimately, that is the same reason why all of you are here today. That is the same determination that you bring to your own service…the same conviction – that a career is about more than just making a living…it's about making a difference.

You're here today because you've found your mission…now it's time for us to work together to help America's veterans and military families find theirs.

Thank you all so much. And I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead. God bless.

NOTE: As prepared for delivery.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320677

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