Washington, D.C.—(ENEWSPF)—January 24, 2011 – 10:57 A.M. EST
DR. BIDEN: Good morning. And on behalf of the President and First Lady, the Vice President and myself, I want to welcome you and thank you for joining us here today at the White House.
I want to offer a special welcome to our service members and military families. Your presence here today honors us all.
I’m proud to stand here this morning as a military mom. My son is a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard and he recently spent a year in Iraq, so my husband and I know well the mixture of pride and concern that all military families share.
From our earliest times together, Michelle and I have had the privilege of meeting with military service members and their families all around the country — people and families like so many of you who are with us here today.
People like Jessica Sanders who I met at a deployment ceremony for members of the Delaware Army National Guard’s 126th Aviation Regiment. Jessica’s fiancé, Captain Mark Thomas, will deploy in the coming weeks to Afghanistan where he and his unit will provide medical evacuations for troops, allies and Afghan civilians. Captain Thomas’s parents are here today, too. Thank you for your service. (Applause.)
People like Sandra Norris, the wife of Colonel John Norris, who I met when I traveled to Iraq last summer. Sandra has volunteered thousands of hours of her time and expertise over the past 20 years –- leading family readiness groups and supporting other military families as an advisor and a friend — all while raising two sons and coping with John’s 42 months in combat.
Each of you here today brings your own story of service, strength and sacrifice — just like the many other military families we have been fortunate enough to meet.
Michelle and I have heard your concerns about schools and career issues. We have shared your joy when your service members have returned from deployment. And we have tried to offer solace when your soldiers have returned home injured. And in each and every instance, we have been moved not just by your sacrifices, but by your incredible spirit and commitment to America.
Michelle and I have talked a lot about the ways that all Americans can support our troops and thank those men and women for their service. Today, we will highlight the efforts of the federal government to support our nation’s military families.
At the direction of the President, the agencies are acting in a coordinated, strategic, and comprehensive way to bring the full force of the federal government to bear on this critically important issue.
As a teacher, I am particularly pleased that the Department of Education is supporting the military children in public schools throughout the country. And I am looking forward to working with Secretary Duncan to help teachers understand how they can meet the unique needs of the military students in their classrooms.
I am also heartened by the efforts to respond to the challenges facing our Guard and Reserve families — from helping them sustain their businesses to supporting their reintegration back into their communities after deployments.
Today is an important next step in this administration’s commitment to support our servicemen, their families and our members.
Michelle and I hold this commitment close in our hearts, just as we keep each of our soldiers in our hearts and in our prayers. As long as we have the privilege and honor of serving in our roles, we will do whatever we can to support those who protect us.
And now it is my pleasure to introduce my partner, my dear friend, and our First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Good morning. Thank you. Good morning, everyone. (Applause.) Thank you. Thanks so much. Thank you all. Thank you for being here. Thank you, Jill, for that kind introduction. It has been a true privilege to work with you on these and so many other issues. And we’ve got a lot more work to do, so I’m looking forward to it.
I also want to recognize all the members of the Cabinet, the elected officials, and all of the military family advocates that we have here with us today.
And let me say a special word of thanks to folks like Patty Shinseki, Becky Gates, and all of the spouses of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior enlisted advisors who have been such good friends and trusted counselors to both Jill and me over these past couple of years.
But most of all, I want to take a moment to thank those among us today and everyone outside of this room who wears our country’s uniform, and the families who serve right alongside them each and every day.
Working with all of you is some of the best work I do. Your stories affect me not just as First Lady, but as a mother, as a wife, and as an American. Stories like that of the military wife, who has balanced raising a daughter, volunteering for her unit’s family readiness groups, and a career as a community developer, all while living in seven different states over 17 years.
Stories like the woman who had just gotten her nursing degree and quit her new job only after two months, so that she could take care of her Navy SEAL brother who was wounded by an IED — two of my favorite people. And today, he’s doing better, even running last fall’s Army 10-miler on a pair of prosthetic legs.
Stories like the young woman, just 15 years old, who took on the role of a third parent — helping her brothers and sisters with homework, assisting with meals — as her mother cared for her wounded father. She summed it all up by simply saying, “They needed me and I was there for them.”
Stories like these — and stories like those of so many in this room — are a reminder of what words like “service,” “strength,” and “sacrifice” — what those words look like in real life. They’re a reminder of the love that keeps us together — the love of family, the love of country.
And for me, and for Jill, they are a reminder of our obligation to our troops, our veterans, and their families — an obligation to work harder; an obligation to channel the strength and courage of our military families and veterans into our work on their behalf.
Again, I know Jill feels the same way, and we’ve learned so much as we’ve tackled these issues together. We visited with servicemen and women, like many of you, at Fort Bragg or Nellis Air Force Base in San Diego and New York, at Landstuhl and in Baghdad. We’ve played with your kids at childcare centers. We’ve sat with you at hospital bedsides. We’ve heard your concerns around conference tables. We’ve invited you to the White House for roundtable discussions and backyard picnics and even a Halloween haunted house or two. (Laughter.)
We’ve seen you giving back to your communities, no matter how strapped you are for time or resources or sleep. We’ve heard how difficult it is when the only way you can connect with your spouse is by sporadic cell phone calls or emails. We’ve seen the strength you’ve shown when a loved one comes home with a wounded body or painful memories, and the journey back to normal takes longer than expected.
And the more we’ve listened, the more stories we’ve heard, the more we’ve recognized that there is no one, single definition of a military family; there’s no standard-issue set of challenges that you all face.
The lives you lead, the families you build, the issues you confront are as diverse as anything seen throughout America. You’re not just a military wife or a husband. Maybe you’re a mom or a dad. Maybe you, too, wear a uniform, or take care of a wounded warrior or a survivor to one of our fallen heroes.
You’re starting your career, or looking to succeed in the one you already have. You’re trying to save for college for your kids and retirement for yourselves. You’re hoping to squeeze in that late night class and make it back in time for dinner. You’re trying to save up for that down payment on the home and still afford the right daycare center for your kids.
And so, for me and for Jill, this isn’t about just understanding your concerns. It’s about addressing your concerns. It’s about telling your stories throughout the country, but more importantly, giving you a voice with decision-makers. But most of all, it’s about getting something done. It’s about making real, lasting changes that make a real difference in your lives.
And that’s why today means so much to us. That’s why we’re so excited. Because back in May, I announced that my husband had directed his Cabinet to identify new priorities and new partnerships to support our military families. So today, they have come back with 50 — 50 specific commitments that aim to keep improving your quality of life.
For instance, the Department of Education, as Jill mentioned, is simplifying its financial aid application process just for you. The Departments of Labor, Commerce, Defense, and the Small Business Administration are partnering with the business community to expand your career options. The Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and Defense are working together to expand your childcare options.
But the list of commitments goes on and on, addressing everything from homelessness to mental health to employment opportunities for young adults. So this effort gives you all a seat at the table not just at the White House or at the Pentagon or at the VA. It gives you a seat at the table all across the federal government.
And I want to emphasize that this is not a one-time press conference. This isn’t just a headline for today that gets buried under tomorrow’s news. These are lasting commitments by the government to address your needs and concerns for years to come. And my hope is that these recommendations will live on no matter the President, no matter the party.
So today isn’t the end of this process, not by a long shot. Don’t think for one minute that Jill and I will not keep pushing and advocating and fighting for you, because we will. And we’re not going to stop until every part of our society -– every part, both inside and outside of government -– is fully mobilized to support our troops and their families. After all the time I’ve spent with you, I know how much you deserve our government and our people’s support. I know it because of your stories. I know it because of what you’ve done for this country. I know it because of that 15-year-old who answered the call, just because she was needed. Some of the best memories I’ve had in the past couple of years are with you.
And my husband feels the exact same way. I know that because of the moments that we’ve shared with wounded warriors and survivors, because of the military children who have made us both smile, and because of the conversation that he and I have had long after those events are over. That’s why he has been such a leader on these issues.
And that is why I am so proud to introduce this man –- because he hears your stories not only as President and Commander-in-Chief, but also as a loving father and as a wonderful husband. He doesn’t hear me say that often. (Laughter.)
So I give to you the President of the United States, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Everyone, please have a seat. Thank you so much.
Well, good morning, everyone. I want to thank Michelle and Jill — although I have to say I hate following both of them. (Laughter.) As I think all you sense, when they speak, the government listens. You should know — and I know Joe Biden would agree with this — when they speak, the President and Vice President listen. (Laughter.)
So, Michelle and Jill, on behalf of all of us, thank you for being such extraordinary champions for our military families and making sure that their priorities are America’s priorities.
To all the members of Congress who are here, the members of my Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaders from across the administration, and most of all, our troops, their families, their advocates — thanks for joining us as we make an unprecedented commitment to America’s military families.
Now, last month I was in Afghanistan to visit our troops and to thank them for their service, especially during the holidays. And I think as some of you are aware, we fly in, in the dark of night for security reasons, unannounced. Folks I’m sure have to scramble on the other end to make sure that our visit works. And we had a wonderful crowd, a great rally. And then afterwards, I took the time not only to meet with General Petraeus and some of the other commanding officers, but I also met with a group of our special ops forces. Now, anybody who’s met with SEALs and Deltas, you know these are some of the toughest, most battle-hardened troops in our military. They are involved in some of the most dangerous fighting that there is.
There are tough guys. Looking at them, you can tell they’re tough. Some folks end up being tough, but these — you can just tell these guys are tough. (Laughter.) And they embody the courage and character that makes our military the finest in the world. And just to give you some sense, these guys are going out on helicopter raids at night with very little support and carrying out extremely dangerous assignments each and every day.
So I asked them. I said, “What do you need from me? What can I do to support you better?” And without missing a beat, they looked me in the eye and they gave me their answer. It wasn’t about more equipment. It wasn’t about more resources on the battlefield. In fact, it wasn’t about them. They said — to a man — “Sir, take care of our families. Take care of our families. If we know our families are all right back home, then we can do our jobs.”
So we are here today because nearly a decade of war has been taking place, and our Armed Forces — you and your families — have done everything you’ve been asked to do. You’ve been everything we could ask you to be. You have done your duty. And as a grateful nation, we must do ours. We have to make sure that America is serving you as well as you have served us.
This isn’t just a military or — this is not just a moral obligation. This is a matter of national security. With millions of military spouses, parents and children sacrificing as well, the readiness of our Armed Forces depends on the readiness of our military families.
As Michelle mentioned, she and I see this in the spouses we meet. During vacation, while we were in Hawaii, we had a chance to see a whole bunch of military families out on Kaneohe Marine Base. And what was true then in the conversations we had is what we find wherever we go around the country — truly heroic wives and husbands who become single parents on the home front and somehow keep it all together —- the house, the kids, maybe even a job of their own.
We see it in the resilience of so many military kids -— boys and girls who, like all the other kids, are just trying to grow up, trying to find their way, but who, unlike other kids, are also having to worry about whether their mom or dad is going to come home safe.
We see it in the devotion of caregivers who tend to their loved ones, our wounded warriors, around the clock, day in, day out. And we see it in the quiet pride of our veterans, who only ask that we live up to those words from President Lincoln, that as a nation, we truly care for all those who have “borne the battle.” We see it in the unending love of the families of the fallen —- our Gold Star families who’ve given their nation the people they loved most in the world.
As Commander-in-Chief, I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that we are fulfilling that request from our troops, that we are taking care of their families. And that’s why, over the past two years, we’ve made major investments: more military housing, more childcare, new schools for our military kids; more counseling and career support for spouses; more help for those tireless caregivers; dramatic increases in veterans health care, and helping hundreds of thousands of veterans and family members pursue their education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
And that’s why I ordered this government-wide effort, a Presidential Study Directive, to bring together the resources of the federal government for this mission. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with these presidential directives, these are reserved for some of our most important and complex national security challenges. I think Mike Mullen will share with you, since becoming President I’ve only ordered about a dozen, including this one, which we believe is the first one ever on behalf of military families.
And today, I’m proud to announce that for the first time ever, supporting the well-being of our military families will be a priority not just for the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, but all across the federal government. That’s why all these Cabinet folks are here today. Sixteen members of my Cabinet have committed their departments and agencies to making military families one of their highest priorities.
We’re focusing on four areas —- the things you said matter most to you, whether you’re Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine or Coast Guard — active Guard or Reserve, a veteran or a member of a family of the fallen. We didn’t wait for today to launch these efforts. Many of these efforts have already been underway. And that includes innovative new partnerships so that, in tough fiscal times, our government is more efficient and serves you better.
So let me just list our primary areas of focus. First, we are putting new emphasis on the quality of life for our military families. The Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, for example, have joined forces to improve community mental health services and prevent suicides. A new office in the Treasury Department is working to protect military families from abusive practices like predatory lending. It turns out that military families are more subject to some of these financial scams than just about any other group.
The Agricultural Department is expanding its support for families in rural areas. A disproportionate number of our military families come from rural areas or are stationed in rural communities.
The Interior Department — we use our national parks to help our wounded warriors recover. And we are going to remain relentless — not just at VA, but at HUD and HHS and across the government -— in our fight to end homelessness among our veterans. We have to have zero tolerance for homelessness among our veterans. (Applause.)
Second, we’re putting a new focus on the education and development of our military children, most of whom go to public schools. So for the first time ever, the Department of Education will make military families a priority for some of its grant programs. And that’s going to give states and communities new incentives to address the unique needs of military children.
The Interior Department, which is already one of the largest federal employers of young people, will create more opportunities, like summer jobs, for young people from military families. And today, we are renewing our call for every state to adopt the Interstate Compact, which makes it easier for military children to transfer between schools and succeed in the classroom. (Applause.)
Third, we’re redoubling our efforts to help military spouses pursue their educations and careers. As Michelle said, we’ve brought in the departments of Labor and Commerce and the Small Business Administration. We’re going to help spouses get that degree, find that job, or start that new business. We want every company in America to know our military spouses and veterans have the skills and the dedication, and our nation is more competitive when we tap their incredible talents. (Applause.)
And finally, we’re going to keep increasing childcare for our military moms and dads with young children. This is not just a job for the Department of Defense. As Michelle said, the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture are now helping, too. And working together, we believe we can find new childcare options for tens of thousands of military children.
So these are just some of the nearly 50 specific commitments that my administration is making today. In other words, we’re not simply reaffirming our responsibility to our military families, we are upping our game. In fact, these 16 members of my Cabinet have signed their name to this report, pledging personally to see this through. So, gang, you are all on the hook. (Laughter.) We know where to find you — (applause) — and not only to fulfill these commitments, but to make sure that as we go forward our military families are being heard across the government. That’s what we’re looking for here.
Michelle and Jill said they’re going to keep pushing —- and I promise you they are not kidding. (Laughter.) And as President, I’m going to make sure that we get this done.
We also recognize that this can’t be a mission for government alone. Government has its responsibilities, but 1 percent of Americans may be fighting our wars; 100 percent of Americans need to be supporting our troops and their families — 100 percent. (Applause.)
So to help launch this effort, Michelle will be on “Oprah” this week to urge —
MRS. OBAMA: Oooh! (Laughter and applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: — to urge every American to join a new national campaign to support our military families. That’s a pretty good plug.
You see, this is one of those challenges, and one of those moments, when we have to remember what unites us as Americans, what we can achieve together — and what we owe to each other, especially to those who serve and sacrifice so we can live free and be safe.
I want every service member who’s deployed to know that when you’re over there taking care of the country that you love, your country is back here taking care of the families that you love. I want every military wife and husband to know that we’re going to help you keep your family strong and secure. I want every military kid to know that we’re going to be there for you, too, to help you grow and to live your dreams.
I want our Gold Star families to know that this nation will never forget and will always honor the supreme sacrifice that your family has made to our nation.
And I want every single American to remember that as the beneficiaries of their service, each of us has an obligation —- a sacred duty —- to care for those who have “borne the battle.”
These are my commitments; these are Michelle and Jill’s commitments; these are my administration’s commitments; and they must be America’s commitments. And as long as I am President, we’re going to keep working to fulfill those commitments for all who serve.
Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. (Applause.)
11:29 A.M. EST