Remarks by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden to the National Governors Association

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–February 28, 2011 – 10:54 A.M. EST

DR. BIDEN:  Good morning, and thanks to all of you for inviting us here today.  It was a great time last night, wasn’t it?  We had a great day —

MRS. OBAMA:  Whooo!  (Laughter and applause.)

DR. BIDEN:  So Michelle and I will be joining your spouses shortly for lunch.

But we wanted to speak to you today about something that’s very important to all of us:  military families.

Over the past two years, we have had the privilege of traveling around the country and around the world, visiting with service members and their families, and hearing their stories firsthand.  Many of the stories are about the pride these families have in serving our country.  But there are also challenges.

We bring the concerns back to the White House, and the President and the Vice President and the Cabinet have responded by committing attention and resources to support our military families.

We know that each of you shares our commitment by supporting our troops and their families.  Many of you have active bases in your states, and all of you have Guard and Reserve families.

We know well the tremendous service they provide to our country.  Today, Michelle and I want to talk to you about our efforts to increase awareness of the unique experiences of military families.

We want to take the opportunity to thank you for your ongoing support and ask for your feedback about the needs and concerns of military families in your states.

Many of you know that my son was deployed to Iraq as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard.   He is back now, but I will always remember the mixture of pride and concern that I felt throughout his deployment.

I know I don’t have to tell any of you just how critical the National Guard is to our national security.   Tens of thousands of our brave citizen soldiers are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other regions –- and taken together, they make up nearly one half of our nation’s military strength.

They also respond to national disasters, humanitarian crises –- from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, to areas in need around the world — they answer the call under your leadership.

As a military mom, I know what a difference it makes when individuals or groups reach out to show support to service members and their families.

I’ve seen through my work with small grassroots organization at home called Delaware Boots on the Ground that community groups can make a huge difference.

Where a military family in Delaware has a need, we try to meet it, whether it’s physical labor or repairs around the house, a fun night out for the kids, or other simple ways individuals, businesses and groups can support a family through a deployment.

There are small and effective groups like this all over the country — like one in Minnesota that collects top-brand hockey equipment for military children, or the barbecue lovers in Ohio that travel the state providing meals for military family picnics, deployment and welcome-home ceremonies, or the accountants across the country that dedicate their talents every spring to help with tax returns.

As an educator, I love hearing about the ways schools and teachers support military children during the deployment of a parent.

Just a few weeks ago, an amazing teacher near Ft. Stewart in Georgia told me how she sets up parent-teacher conferences over the Internet, so she can update deployed parents on their children’s progress in the classroom.  Many of the military children in that school keep laminated pictures of their deployed parent on their desk.

There are so many great and inspiring stories which demonstrate that every American can take their time, their expertise and their passion and use it to support and thank a military family.

Michelle and I have talked a lot about the ways that all Americans can support our troops and thank these men and women for their service.

And now, we are trying to encourage all Americans to join us in this effort.

As long as we have the privilege and the honor of serving in our roles, the First Lady and I will do whatever we can to support those who protect us — and we look forward to working with you and your spouses on these ongoing efforts.

And now it is my pleasure to introduce my partner, my friend, your First Lady, Michelle Obama.  (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  Thanks so much, Jill.  And again, welcome.  I hope you all had a lovely evening last night.  Got your groove on.  (Laughter.)  But we had a great time, so I hope you’re getting a lot of work done today.

I know that you have a busy day ahead, and Jill and I are grateful to have a chance to talk to you today about our latest endeavor.  But we wanted to take a few minutes to talk with you about an issue that is important to both of us, as Jill said, and that’s mobilizing our country to support our military families.

As you know, all our men and women in uniform represent only 1 percent of the population, 1 percent of our country taking care of the needs of all of us.  And they shoulder the entire responsibility of defending our country.  They’re enduring tour after tour of duty, and they’re missing birthdays and holidays and all those daily moments with the people they love the most.

And these men and women aren’t the only ones who sacrifice for our country.  I said this when I appeared on Oprah, is that it’s very easy for us to recognize the men and women in uniform because they’re in uniform, but there are people who we don’t see who aren’t in uniform.  And the truth is those are the people who take care of them, and they’re their families.  Their families serve, too.

And over the last two years, Jill and I have spent a lot of time meeting with spouses who play the role of both parents for months on end.  If you think about the challenges your families face as you serve, which is how I came to this issue thinking about the challenges I face and then looking at a military spouse who is shouldering the exact same burden — juggling play dates and carpools and doing their best to hide their own fears while answering questions from their kids about when mom or dad is coming home, enduring the grief and the heartbreak if they don’t return.

So the thing I had to think about is if I’m feeling sorry for myself in my role with all that I’m juggling, just imagine if I were in their position, with the pressures and the challenges and the uncertainty.  But they do it proudly.  And that’s the thing that we’ve learned.  That’s been one of the benefits of traveling around the country.  These families do not want our pity.  They do not want our sympathy.  They serve like their service members with pride, and they do it without complaint and they do it without regret.  And every day, these men and women and these children and these parents and these aunts and uncles, they show us what words like “service” and “strength” and “sacrifice” — they show us what those words really look like.

So I think we can all agree, all of us, regardless of what our political positions may be, we can all agree that with everything these families do to take care of this country and all of us, America, we have an obligation to take care of them.  And that’s why last year my husband ordered a sweeping review of the entire federal government to see what the government is doing for these families and what the government could be doing better for these families.

And we gathered nearly 50 recommendations from Cabinet agencies for how we can improve services for our military families.  That includes everything from simplifying financial aid applications for these families, to increasing career opportunities for these spouses, to expanding childcare options for the children of service members.

And all of this is a very good start.  These are all very important steps, because our view is that we have to look internally before we can look outside.  But we know that the needs of our military families won’t be met simply by improving the way things work here in Washington.

So much of what these folks need are things that government can’t provide.  They need employers who are willing to hire them, even if they’re moving all across the country.  They need employers who understand the unique challenges that military spouses face.  They need schools that recognize the unique needs of kids who are facing multiple deployments.  They need to know those kids are in their classrooms.

They need communities that show gratitude for the sacrifices they’re making — not just with words, but with deeds.  And not just once in a while, not just on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, but these communities need to rally around these families every single day.

And that’s why next month, Jill and I are going to be launching a campaign to rally this country around to support not just our troops, but their families.  And we’re focusing on four main areas:  employment, education, wellness and public awareness.

And just to give you a sense of what we hope to do, I mean, if you look at what we’ve accomplished with “Let’s Move” just in one short year, our goal is to take that same model and make the conversation about our military families at the top of mind of every single one of us in this country.

We’re going to be working with businesses and nonprofit organizations to improve career opportunities for veterans and military spouses.  There are a lot of wonderful models, companies that are already doing great things.  We want to raise up those models and encourage other businesses to find a way to do the same.

We’re working with education groups to make schools more accommodating for military kids, and we’re going to be encouraging all Americans to simply step up as individuals, which the folks in this country are more than willing to do.  We care about our troops.  Oftentimes we just don’t know what to do.  And our hope is that through this public awareness campaign, we can funnel that energy, we can galvanize it, and we can direct it in a way that’s going to be most helpful for our military families.

And that might mean something as simple as mowing the lawn for a family in your community or shoveling the snow.  When you talk to military families, these are the small things that make them feel appreciated without making them feel helpless.  Or offering military family discounts at local businesses, offering professional services — whether someone is a lawyer or an accountant or a mechanic.  Whatever people do, that’s what we’re asking Americans — find the thing that you do best and find a way to make that service something of importance and value to our military families.

However folks choose to help, the idea here is very simple:  It’s about doing everything we can to keep military families in our hearts and on our minds.

And this isn’t just about doing it in a time of war because once the war is over — and hopefully that will happen — the battles of military families and our troops continue.  The residual effects of deployments go on and on for a lifetime.  So this isn’t just a campaign for today.  This is a campaign for every day, all day.  This is going to outlive me and Jill and Joe and Barack.  This is something that should be a part of what we do here in America.

And Jill — as she said, that this is especially important when we talk about our National Guard servicemen and women who you all have special responsibility for right in your own states so you know their needs, you know their contributions.

National Guard families, they face the same struggles as any other military family.  The difference is, is that these families often don’t live on bases or in communities with those built-in resources and support networks.  They are our neighbors.  We don’t even see them.  We don’t even know the challenges they face.  And oftentimes they’re living in communities where no one can relate to their experiences at all.  So it takes a special effort to reach out to these individuals and their families.  And that’s why we want to work with all of you — the governors of our states and with people and organizations within your states — to help us find ways to better support military families, to keep raising awareness and making these families an important part of all of our common agenda.

So we’re here because we want to hear from you.  If you have outstanding ideas — shoot, if you have good ideas — (laughter) — or if there are groups in your states that you know are making a difference, we’re asking you to tell us about these.  Part of what Jill and I are going to continue to do is to travel the country and to use our platform, our ability to attract a little attention, and to shine a light on your states and the things that you do in an effort to provide these an example for the rest of the country for what they can do.

So we want to hear those ideas.  We want to hear from your staffs.  We want to put this information on and find ways to better connect people looking for volunteer opportunities, looking for good ideas, finding a way for them to connect with you in your states.

Because in the end, this is something that I think we can all agree on, no matter where we come from, no matter what we might think about any other issue.  We all know that this issue — this is not a Democrat issue, this is not a Republican issue.  This is an American issue.  And more importantly, this is an American obligation.  It truly is.

It’s about showing our gratitude to that very small group of Americans who make such a tremendous contribution and sacrifice to this country.  And it’s about serving the people who sacrifice so much to serve us.

One thing my husband says is that when he talks to troops and he goes out to wherever they’re stationed, that they don’t talk about themselves.  Never do they ask for anything for themselves.  They are our soldiers, they’re focused, but they always worry about what’s going on back at home.  That’s what keeps them not being able to focus on their mission — not knowing that their wife, their children are being cared for; when they come back that they’ll be secure.  Those are the issues that our soldiers struggle with when they’re out on the battlefield.

So I know that this is something that we can do together.  And Jill and I, we didn’t come to this issue knowing that we were both passionate about this.  We were blessed to be put together and be able to join forces behind this one issue.  And we want the entire nation to feel like this is an obligation that we all can work on together.

So we’re going to need your help.  We’re going to need your support and encouragement to make this a reality.  We’re very excited about this initiative because we think that this will not only help our troops and their families, but it will help us as a nation link together and be even stronger.

So we’re excited.  We’re going to gear up.  We’re going to be working hard.  We’re going to on the road.  We’re going to make this fun and exciting.  We’re going to pull in businesses and entertainment and sports, and we’re going to pull in all sectors to get behind this effort.  And I know that people are more than ready to step up.  So if there is any way that you can helpful to us, if there are any suggestions that you can have for how we structure and talk about this issue so that it continues to be a bipartisan issue, we will gladly take those recommendations.  But I am looking for your leadership to make this happen, to make this a true success.  And if we do this we will have some grateful families behind us.  They’ve just been grateful to hear that this is a part of the national conversation.  They don’t even want much.  So I think because of that we can succeed.

So I want to thank you all for giving Jill and I your time.  I know your time is limited.  Things are tough in your states back home.  But I think even in this economy there are so many things we can do to keep this agenda in the forefront of all of our minds.

So thank you all in advance, and I look forward to visiting your states.  So you all take care and good luck.  (Applause.)

11:16 A.M. EST