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First lady aims to improve military families' lives

WASHINGTON -- First lady Michelle Obama stood behind a podium in the White House's East Room, her husband close at hand, as she addressed an audience of high-ranking military and government officials.

Although it was a high-powered crowd, the first lady wasn't there for the officials or for the star-studded brass. She was there to speak for military families.

As the flashes of cameras lit the room, the first lady unveiled an initiative intended to draw the entire nation together in support of military families.

This is about "the extraordinary military families who serve and sacrifice so much every day," Mrs. Obama said.

The event marked not only the launch of the "Joining Forces" campaign, but also the culmination of a long journey to improve military families' lives.

Over the past two years, the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden have traveled to bases, in the U.S. and overseas, to meet with military spouses and to advocate for funding on their behalf.

"This is the moment that we've been working toward for such a very long time," she said.

For Mrs. Obama, it's a journey that began even before her husband took the oath of office. A little more than two years ago, she hit the campaign trail and met with working women to discuss the challenges of balancing work and family while "staying sane."

During those talks, the first lady said she heard from a segment of society she hadn't heard from before.

"They were military moms and grandmothers and sisters who were handling all of the stresses that we were handling, only adding on the multiple deployments, multiple transfers, and trying to finish education," she said.

Mrs. Obama heard from mothers who were trying to keep their children settled as they moved from base to base, and from spouses who were having trouble with job certifications. She recalled one military couple that was trying to adopt. Each time they moved, they had to fill out new paperwork, needlessly drawing out the process.

The first lady said she was taken aback by what she'd heard.

Growing up in Chicago, she'd had little contact with military families, she said. Her father had served in the Army, but that was before she was born. She had little knowledge of the challenges associated with military life, including the frequent moves and school transfers, and multiple deployments.

The stories "took my breath away," Mrs. Obama said, and also sparked a passion for military family support.

"One thing I vowed on that campaign trail as I got to know these women, and some men, of course, (was) that if I had the privilege of serving as first lady, I'd use this platform to shine a light on these issues," she said.

Mrs. Obama said she was thrilled to find out that the vice president's wife shares her passion.

Dr. Biden is part of a military family with firsthand knowledge of the challenges they face.

Dr. Biden's son, Beau, is a member of the Delaware Army National Guard, and as a military mom, Dr. Biden said she had her own struggles when he deployed to Iraq a few years ago.

"The first time we met, I asked her what she wanted to work on, and it was military families," the first lady recalled.

Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden together set out to first "shine a light" on military families, and then to call on the nation to take steps to increase the support offered to them.

Just last week, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden embarked on a two-day, nationwide tour to promote military family support. They made stops in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina and Ohio during their trip. They attended a math and science competition and an employment event, and stopped by a celebration for pregnant military spouses.

At an event in Ohio, the first lady talked about the impact of frequent moves on spouses seeking jobs.

"We see them trying to build seniority at their jobs, but seeing that they have to keep starting over every time that they move to a new duty station," she said at a national retailer's distribution center. "And that's not easy, particularly when so many employers see a resume with multiple jobs as a red flag, rather than as a reality of military life."

To assist, Mrs. Obama is calling on businesses to recruit and hire military spouses and veterans, and asking them to make their workplaces more military-spouse-friendly, with flexible work schedules and portable jobs.

In Colorado, the first lady focused on education at Fountain-Fort Carson High School in Colorado Springs.

She spoke of a national math and science initiative that's working with the Defense Department and partners in the private sector to expand a program called the "Initiative for Military Families."

This program, she explained, provides advanced placement courses in math and science to schools and areas with high military populations.

Military life equips children with special skill sets such as responsibility and flexibility, she noted at the event.

"And when you use that knowledge alongside with what you'll be learning in these math and science courses and other classes, there's no telling what you guys will be able to do and what you'll be able to achieve," she told the students gathered there.

Their last stop was in Columbus, Ohio, where they hosted a concert-style event for local military families and community members.

As in their other stops, the first lady asked the audience a few simple questions.

"Jill and I believe that everyone -- everyone -- can do something, even boys and girls," she said. "Everyone can do something to support a military family, and everyone can ask themselves, 'What can I do? How can I give back?'"

Following her remarks, the first lady stepped off the stage and into the crowd to mingle with military families. She shook hands and shared hugs, taking time to greet each person with a warm smile and a few words of gratitude.

Their aim, Mrs. Obama said, is to connect troops and their families -- who make up only 1 percent of the nation -- with the other 99 percent of Americans.

"I think that most Americans are like I was -- not aware," she said. "But I believe that if we're made to be aware, that we step up."

Mrs. Obama said the best way to raise awareness is to pass on military families' stories.

She cited a few that have remained at the forefront of her mind.

One young woman she met stepped up to care for her family after her father was severely burned. While her mother tended to her father, the 15-year-old girl cared for her younger brothers and sisters.

She cooked, cleaned and helped them with their homework, the first lady said.

That young woman is now in college, Mrs. Obama said, marveling at "the strength and maturity that it took for her to change her life."

"She did it because, in her own words, 'My family needed me,'" the first lady said.

In another family, a sister gave up her career as a nurse to move in with her brother and take care of him after he was injured and lost both of his legs, she said.

And many of these families are serving not just in the military, but in the community as well, Mrs. Obama said.

"They're the coaches, they're the heads of PTA, they're the ones leading the bake sales, they're the ones supporting each other," she said. "In addition to all the burdens they already have, they're finding ways to reach out and be the best Americans that this country has to offer."

Obama said she's touched by the stories she's heard, but now it's time for the rest of the nation to hear them.

"These aren't stories of sadness," she said. "They're stories of success, triumph and coming together and unifying. These are the stories the country needs to be motivated by."

In the coming months, companies, businesses, nonprofit groups and individuals will be rolling out new initiatives and programs for military families to assist them with everything from employment and education to mental health and wellness. Federal agencies also will continue to pursue the nearly 50 commitments they made earlier this year through the Presidential Study Directive 9, a governmentwide effort to improve military families' lives.

Mrs. Obama said she will continue to showcase the nation's efforts to improve military family support.

The first lady said she would like to weave her efforts into the fabric of the nation so that "when we're long gone and the next president has taken office, this is just something we do, that all sectors of society will have figured out how to incorporate this into their mission now and forever."

Above all, Mrs. Obama said she wants military families to know that their nation will support them over the long haul.

It's "making sure that you know that from the president of the United States on down, we're behind you," she said. "Hopefully, families will see they live in a nation that truly cares."