Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Got Your Six Screenwriters Event Conversation on the Power of Telling Veterans' Stories

January 30, 2015

MRS. OBAMA: Good morning. (Applause.) Thank you all. Thanks so much. You all, rest yourselves. We want you well-rested so you can get to work on this initiative.

I want to start by thanking Chris for that wonderful introduction, for his leadership of Got Your Six, and for his tremendous service to our country. I also want to thank National Geographic for hosting us here today, and for highlighting the strength and courage of our men and women in uniform in their latest issue. And I've got to give a big thank you to our panel from earlier today, especially Bradley Cooper, as well as my dear friend, Bruce Cohen, who has been such a tremendous ally in this effort from the very beginning.

And most of all, I want to thank all of you -- the writers, the content creators, and leaders from across the industry. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here today. This is very important.

Every day, through the movies and TV shows and ads you all create, you have the power to shape our understanding of the world around us. You challenge our most strongly held beliefs. You influence our opinions on current events. You bring ideas and perspectives into our lives that we might not be exposed to otherwise. So the fact is, in many ways, you all are in a unique position to help us address some of the most challenging issues that we face as a nation.

Just take an issue like gay rights. It wasn't all that long ago that this was a third-rail kind of issue, not just in politics, but in entertainment as well. It was considered sensitive, even controversial. But in the early '90s, that started to change. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay character in "Philadelphia." "The Real World" included an openly gay cast member. And over the years, there was "Ellen" and "Will and Grace," "Milk" and "Brokeback Mountain." And today, "The Imitation Game" is up for Best Picture at the Oscars, and Cam and Mitchell –- two of my favorites -- are raising their daughter on "Modern Family," one of the top-rated shows on TV. And at the same time, we've seen gay rights advance in real life as well. As my husband said, we've seen gay marriage go from a wedge issue into a civil right in states all across this country.

And that's just one issue. From women's rights to interracial marriage, to combatting drunk driving –- as our nation has evolved and changed for the better, the entertainment industry has not only reflected that evolution, in many cases, Hollywood has inspired and accelerated it. You all have told the real, honest, true stories that for too long went untold.

And that's what brings us all here today. See, there's another great untold story in this country right now, one that is crying out for our attention -– and that is the story of our troops, veterans, and their families. Now, as Chris mentioned, I think most folks have at least a broad idea of who those folks are. But often, it stops there –- just a rough sketch, a superficial image.

As Got Your Six has found, people generally see veterans in one of two ways –- either the broken, downtrodden vet who is homeless or on drugs or has such severe PTSD that he can't even function, or the saintly hero who lives with such courage and moral clarity that the only thing the rest of us can do is shower him with awe and amazement. And of course, it's always a "he." We sort of forget about the 1.5 million women veterans who have served in uniform. (Applause.)

But these two images –- one broken, one perfect –- they're just caricatures. They simply don't reflect the real, human complexity of our veterans' lives. They don't reflect the real courage and struggle and sacrifice our veterans make, and all the skills they can offer. So often we only see the emotional homecomings, but not the rest of the story. And having had the privilege of meeting so many of our troops and veterans, I can tell you that the real stories are much more complicated –- and much more inspiring.

For example, take the story of Jim Zenner, who was an Army intelligence analyst during the Iraq War. Jim is sharp, thoughtful -- but not long after he came home, his father died, and Jim says that's when "things kind of fell apart." He struggled to control his emotions, got into shouting matches with his wife, and one night it got so bad he had to move out of the house. He was suddenly homeless, with nowhere to go.

But Jim quickly got back on his feet. He earned his social work degree. He is now back with his wife and kids -- and this is the kicker -- the nonprofit that helped get Jim into housing ended up hiring him to run a veterans center in LA. See, they didn't see him as somehow damaged. They saw how much of an asset he could be. And today, he's in charge of about 30 staffers. He's launched a veteran-to-veteran mentoring and training initiative. And all together, his facility has given shelter and counseling and job training to hundreds of his fellow veterans.

And then there's Trish Freeland, who served for 30 years in the Air Force, doing everything from logistics to broadcasting to career counseling. She earned her bachelor's and her master's degrees along the way. When she left the service, she went home to be with her family and struggled to find a job. Sometimes she talked herself out of even applying for jobs if she lacked just one qualification on the posting. Other times folks told her that she had too many skills. And finally, more than a year after she retired from the Air Force, Trish landed a meaningful career at the Small Business Administration, and she's putting all the skills she learned in the military to good use and she loves everything she's doing.

And then there's Melissa Meadows, whose husband sustained severe brain and nerve injuries in Afghanistan. It was so serious that one of his doctors described him as an "advanced Alzheimer's patient." So Melissa ended up leaving her job as a nurse, and today, she's a full-time caregiver, helping her husband in and out of bed, making sure he takes all of his medications, managing his finances and offering emotional support every step of the way. But Melissa doesn't want sympathy. She's proud to be there for her husband. She's proud to serve her country as a military spouse. She even helped organize a support network to help other caregivers share information and ideas -– a model that's now being replicated at institutions around the country.

Now, when I think about folks like the ones I just described, I think about how easily their stories could be misrepresented. Jim could be just the homeless vet with emotional issues; Trish, the down-on-her-luck vet that can't find a job; Melissa, the downtrodden military wife.

But these men and women are nothing like those stereotypes. They are dynamic, skilled professionals. They're loving sons and daughters and spouses and parents. They're proud of their country, and want to do their part to help make it better. And you shouldn't have to be First Lady to have the opportunity to see all of that.

So today, I'm calling on all of you and folks across the entertainment industry to change the conversation about our veterans and military families. Give us the full story. Show us veterans like Jim –- veterans who were born to serve and keep giving back long after they hang up their uniform. Give us characters like Trish –- strong female veterans with skills and experience who can thrive in any kind of business or organization. Show us the courage of people like Melissa -– spouses whose strength and passion for their family and their country can inspire us all.

And let's be clear -- I'm not saying that you should tell these stories just because it's the nice thing to do or the right thing to do. You should do it because these are good stories, period. They make for tremendous TV and movies that people want to see. So these stories are good for business as well.

Just look at the latest box office numbers. The number-one movie in America right now is a complex, emotional depiction of a veteran and his family. And I had a chance to see "American Sniper" this week on that long flight we took – (laughter) -- and while I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I've heard firsthand from military families over these past few years.

Now, I'm not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but this movie reflects those wrenching stories that I've heard -- the complex journeys that our men and women in uniform endure. The complicated moral decisions they are tasked with every day. The stresses of balancing love of family with a love of country. And the challenges of transitioning back home to their next mission in life.

And here's why a movie like this is important: see, the vast majority of Americans will never see these stories. They will never grasp these issues on an emotional level without portrayals like this. Like I said, I'm lucky -– I have had the chance to visit our wounded warriors at Walter Reed, go to base after base. I've been able to sit down with groups of caregivers and military spouses and hear about their struggles and their triumphs.

And let me tell you, those experiences have changed me. They have changed me. They've made me want to do everything I can to support our troops, veterans and their families. But for all those folks in America who don't have these kinds of opportunities, films and TV are often the best way we have to share those stories.

And here's the thing -- you don't have to center an entire movie or create a special episode on these issues. These folks can just be ordinary characters in the communities you create -- a neighbor who once saw combat, a teacher whose son is deployed. See, that's the way we hope our country will welcome back our veterans -- not by setting them apart, but by fully integrating them into the fabric of our communities.

Those are the kinds of stories you can tell. Just like the pioneers who pushed the envelope and added an interracial couple on "The Jeffersons" -– (laughter) -- or who convinced the folks at "Cheers" and "L.A. Law" to take on the issue of drunk driving -- just like all those folks, you can change the game for our newest generation of veterans and their families. And that's why I'm so thrilled that organizations from across the entertainment industry are coming together through Got Your Six and Six Certified to encourage writers and producers to tell our veterans' stories.

But it's not just about writing about these stories. It's about taking that next step and actually hiring or even casting a veteran, or bringing veterans into the writers' room. Because that's how you get a real, true understanding of what it means to be an American veteran. And this effort is really just the latest example of Hollywood answering the call to action that Jill Biden and I made back in 2011.

Shows ranging from "Nashville" to "Doc McStuffins" have shared the stories of our veterans in new and meaningful ways. Disney's "Jessie" and Nickelodeon's "iCarly" each have military parents as recurring characters. HBO put on that wonderful Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day. And our Joining Forces initiative has worked with Dreamworks and iHeartRadio to create a series of powerful PSAs -– including one I did with some animated penguins. That was new. (Laughter.)

Now, I know that some of you might be thinking to yourselves, well, this all sounds great, but I don't know anything about veterans issues so how am I going to get this done? You might be wondering about doing our veterans a disservice by taking on something that you don't fully understand. And believe me, I understand that feeling -- in fact, that's exactly how I felt when I first started working on military-family issues.

But what I want you to know is that you don't have to do this on your own. There are so many wonderful people and organizations who are ready and willing to connect you with veterans and family members who can help you tell these stories -– organizations like the Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Blue Star Families, and so many more.

So with their help, any one of you can share the stories of our veterans and military families. You can help show this country who our veterans really are. And right now, with our combat mission over in Afghanistan and more of our veterans transitioning home, this work couldn't be more important. Because if we do this right, it can mean real change for how our veterans are treated in their communities. It can mean that employers are more likely to hire a veteran or military spouse. It can mean that teachers are reaching out to military kids in their classrooms. It can mean that veterans are more willing to engage with their friends, families, neighbors about the challenges they face, because they know they'll be talking to someone who maybe understands their experience just a little bit more.

Now, it's not like a single episode or a movie will mean that everyone in America will immediately understand the full experience of what it's like to wear our country's uniform or serve in combat. No, that's not it. But just like we've seen on other issues, bit by bit, if we can familiarize the country with who these folks truly are, if we can give folks a better picture of everything our veterans have to offer, then we can make a real difference in the lives of these folks and their families.

That's what this effort is about. It's about making the transition home just a little easier. It's about serving our men and women in uniform as well as they've served us. For so many years, these men and women have had our backs -- and now it's our turn to step up for them.

We've got to join forces with them. We've got to show them that we've truly got their six. And I know that you all can do that. I know that you have the talent and creativity, and, more importantly, the humanity to succeed in this mission. And I can't wait to see all the extraordinary stories you're going to tell in the months and years ahead.

So thank you all so much for everything you do, everything you will do. And God bless. Take care. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Got Your Six Screenwriters Event Conversation on the Power of Telling Veterans' Stories Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321812

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