First Lady Michelle Obama
WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama says she is determined to use the "wonderful megaphone" she has as first lady to highlight the plight of military families and encourage Americans to do more to help the people her husband calls "the force behind the force."
"We should all be working together on this," Michelle Obama said Tuesday in an interview with USA TODAY after the official launch of her new "Joining Forces" initiative at the White House. "These are pretty solid Americans out here that are making these sacrifices quietly for all the rest of us."
Left behind when their loved ones go to war, the wives,husbands and children of the military's 2.2 million soldiers, sailors and airmen often face lonely struggles with issues as critical as finding jobs and changing schools to tasks as mundane as mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.
"Unlike our troops, military families don't wear uniforms so we don't always see them," the first lady said during an East Room ceremony.
Military families will be Michelle Obama's second signature issue, following her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity through exercise and healthy eating.
She and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, say they intend to build a program that can outlast their husbands' tenure. "Our military families deserve our respect and support at every stage of their lives - no matter who's in office," Obama said.
The first lady says she plans to encourage businesses, non-profit groups, celebrities and others to pitch in and help.
Biden said individuals also need to step up. Whether it's an offer to babysit, make a meal or car pool the kids, "every one of us can commit to one small act of kindness," said Biden, whose son Beau served in Iraq in 2008-09 as part of the Delaware Army National Guard. She said in the interview that it "meant the world to me" when members of her church read in the program that Beau was serving and approached her to say they were praying for him.
The effort follows a government plan released this year when President Obama instructed agencies to step up housing, education, health and other programs geared toward military families. Focused on helping families cope with issues related to employment, education and health, "Joining Forces" will be managed by a three-member board that includes retired general Stanley McChrystal, who stepped down as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year after criticizing Vice President Biden and other officials in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
Among the commitments announced Tuesday:
•Wal-Mart and Sam's Club will guarantee a job at a nearby store for military family members who have been transferred to another part of the country. Military spouses often have a hard time finding work because employers are reluctant to hire employees they know will be moving on in a couple of years.
•The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will hold 100 hiring fairs around the country to help 50,000 veterans and military spouses find jobs outside government.
•The YMCA, National Military Family Association and Sierra Club Foundation will offer free summer camp to 7,000 military kids at camps in 35 states this summer.
Jordan Mingus, a military spouse and mother of three young kids whose husband is in Afghanistan on his third deployment to the Middle East, would welcome the help. "I pride myself on being about to do just about everything," she says.
That means driving 90 minutes each way from her Havelock, N.C., home to take college classes, juggling doctor visits related to 6-year-old Lilly Rose's undiagnosed neurological problems, picking up 4-year-old Malaki from day care on time and ferrying 11-year-old Izabell to far-flung games with her travel soccer team.
If only she knew how to operate the family lawnmower. "There are little things I don't know how to do," says Mingus, 31, whose family has moved five times in 10 years in addition to coping with her husband's multiple deployments. "And we can't afford to hire somebody."
She says military families are thrilled that the White House is paying attention.
"People may not agree with Obama's politics, but what Michelle Obama is doing is taken with open arms," she says.
The first lady, whose patriotism was questioned by some during the presidential campaign, said that she's not worried about whether anyone will think her effort on behalf of military families is political.
"I don't think most Americans will look at this cynically," she said. " This has to be a bipartisan all-American thing. ... This should be part of the fabric of this country."
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY