The Obama administration launched a national initiative Tuesday to highlight and support service members and their families, joining with top corporations and nonprofit groups to bolster their health-care, employment and educational opportunities.
The public efforts will be led by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, who will start a tour of military bases and communities Wednesday.
In the East Room, packed with Cabinet members, congressional leaders, military brass and advocates, President Obama said, “Americans in uniform have never served alone.”
“Behind every American in uniform stands a wife, a husband; a mother, a dad; a son or daughter; a sister or brother. These families — these remarkable families — are the force behind the force,” he said. “They are the reason we have the finest military in the world.”
In January, Obama issued a presidential study directive to coordinate an administration-wide approach to helping military families cope with the needs and strains put on veterans returning from war.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have spent the past year meeting with military families at the White House and in communities and hospitals across the country. They will travel to North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio and Texas to highlight grass-roots efforts to support veterans and their families.
The effort, called Joining Forces, also includes assistance from Wal-Mart, Sears and Siemens to help service members find jobs. On the education front, private companies such as Boeing, Exxon Mobil and Discovery Communications will support math and reading initiatives for military children. And several nonprofit health organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the YMCA, will focus on helping military families lead healthier lives.
Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, ousted last year as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan after being quoted making disparaging remarks about senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone article, will lead a three-member advisory board that will work with the corporations and foundations.
“This is a challenge to every segment of American society to take action and make a real commitment to supporting our military families,” the first lady said.
Michelle Obama came to the issue of military families while she was campaigning for her husband and meeting with small groups of women across the country. She said she has received letters from military spouses urging her to help make sure that Americans don’t forget them. She said the campaign is about renewing the bonds between those who serve and sacrifice, and those who benefit.
Jill Biden, a Blue Star mom, talked about the pride and concern she had as her stepson Beau deployed for a one-year stint in Iraq — and the prayer she would say in her classroom, when her thoughts went to her stepson and others in harm’s way.
“Each American has the ability to make a difference in the lives of military families,” Biden said. “Every one of us can commit to one small act of kindness.”
The president said that whenever he visits with service members, they tell him to make sure to take care of their families back home, which he called not only a moral obligation but also a matter of national security.
In May, Obama signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which would give cash assistance, counseling and additional help to people caring for wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But the administration missed the Jan. 31 deadline for implementing that program.
“We are supportive of any initiative that will strengthen military families, but we are still concerned that the benefits aren’t in the hands of some of the families that are making sacrifices every day,” said Steve Nardizzi, the executive director of the Wounded Warrior Project, an advocacy group for injured service members. “We think there is a role for all Americans being there, but that support should be in supplement to the support that the government should provide.”
West Wing aides said the initial timeline for the program was aggressive and didn’t take into account bureaucratic complexities. Full implementation of the benefits should happen by early summer, they said.
“This is about all of us Americans joining forces,” the first lady said. “Every single American can do something.”