DR. BIDEN: What a great day for a celebration. Thank you, General Dempsey, for that kind introduction and for all that you have done to support the Joining Forces initiative over the past year. I also want to thank Deanie Dempsey, who’s been a wonderful partner and a wonderful friend. Thank you for your leadership. (Applause.)
To the Joining Forces Community Challenge finalists who are here, it was great to see you all yesterday, and we’re delighted to have you here at the White House this morning.
One of the best parts of my role as Second Lady is spending time with military veterans and families. And I’ve traveled across the — as I’ve traveled across the country and the world, I’m always inspired by the strength and the resilience of our military families.
While the troops serving our nation may be only 1 percent of the population, we want to make sure that 100 percent of Americans are supporting them. Our military families have done so much for our country and each of us can do something in return. That’s why the First Lady and I created Joining Forces to encourage all Americans to support and honor our military families.
Since we launched Joining Forces a year ago, we have been so inspired by the many ways Americans all across the country are honoring, celebrating and supporting our military families. Our partners in this effort are businesses, schools, churches, communities and individuals. The Joining Forces Community Challenge finalists here today are shining examples of what we’ve seen.
Organizations like HeartsApart.org — photographers volunteer their time to take photos of soon-to-be deployed servicemembers and their families. And so that they can carry their loved ones when they are serving us, these beautiful photographs are printed on waterproof, durable cards that fit perfectly in the pocket of a battle dress uniform.
Programs like GreenCare for Troops, which connects local green industry professionals with military families to provide free lawn and landscaping services while their loved ones are serving our country.
Or the city of Richfield, Utah, an entire community that has supported its local Army National Guard through four deployments since September 11, 2001. They’ve organized a community-sponsored holiday party for the families of deployed troops. The local newspaper delivers the hometown paper to deployed soldiers so that they can stay in touch with home. And the community library ordered children’s books about deployment so that children will understand what their parents are doing while they are away.
These are just a few examples of what is happening all across our country. If I had to sum up what we have seen since launching Joining Forces in one word, it would be “inspiring.” These efforts aren’t always in the headlines, but they support our military families every single day in real and meaningful ways. That’s exactly what the First Lady and I set out to accomplish with Joining Forces.
So please, let’s give a round of applause for all the Challenge winners who are here with us today. (Applause.)
I am also proud to announce that after the wonderful response this first year, we will start another challenge later this year. We look forward to seeing more of the creative ways that Americans are giving back to our proud and brave military families.
And now it is my great pleasure to introduce an amazing, young woman. I met Moranda Hern two years ago when she came to my office to tell me what it was like for her when her dad was deployed to Afghanistan. She was going through all the challenges of being a teenager with the added burden of worrying every day about her father’s safety.
Moranda’s dad is in the California National Guard, so she didn’t have the support of a military community and she felt disconnected from her peers. When Moranda met another military teen, she realized she wasn’t alone. The girls created a support network called The Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs* — to make sure other military girls had a way to share their experiences with one another. Today the Sisterhood connects military girls through an online community and is expanding nationwide.
Moranda is here today as a military daughter and the founder of an initiative that has made a real difference in the lives of military children. Now, as you can see, she wears a uniform herself. She is pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot as a sophomore at the United States Air Force Academy.
I’m so proud to introduce Moranda Hern. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
* * * * *
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, everyone. Please be seated. Welcome. Welcome to the White House. And happy anniversary.
I want to begin by thanking Moranda for that lovely introduction. But she is the reason why we do this. I mean, enough said. There are thousands of amazing kids like her all over this country that need to have this light shined on them. So we are so proud of you, so very proud of you — and the others like you. So keep it up.
I also want to recognize Tom Brokaw, who has been such an advocate for our men and women in uniform. He has been amazing. And we are privileged to have him with us today and have his voice out there so passionately on behalf of families and troops.
Of course, I want to thank General Dempsey and Deanie. They have just been amazing partners. I think I spend more time with you all than I do my husband — (laughter) — which isn’t bad, isn’t bad, not too bad. But they have just been tremendous. And I can’t thank you both enough for what you have done for this country, what you are doing and I know you will continue to do for the rest of your lives. So we wouldn’t be here without you.
And of course, I want to thank my partner in crime, Dr. Jill Biden. She is, as you know, a proud military mom, very passionate. She is really just a tremendous friend, just a true inspiration for me. This would not be as much fun if I didn’t have her by my side. And she has done just an amazing job, and we need to give her another round of applause. (Applause.)
And of course, I want to join Jill in congratulating the winners of the Joining Forces Community Challenge. We are so happy that all of you have been able to come and travel here to D.C. And you’ve been spending a little time in the city. I understand that there was a wonderful reception and roundtable yesterday that I missed, but I hear was just wonderful. And you’ve been able to get some tours around town. I hope everybody has been nice. And there’s going to be a luncheon for you all today. So, hopefully, the food will be good.
But we are just thrilled to have you in our nation’s backyard to congratulate and honor all that you’re doing. So thank you again.
I also want to recognize Congressman Al Green who is here. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is here as well. Thank you both for being here. And, finally, I want to thank each and every one of you for taking the time to be here this morning.
We have many people in the audience. We have our troops and military families here, but we also have government and military leaders, business and nonprofit leaders, leaders from our faith communities, our schools, our hospitals, our veterans’ service organizations and so many others. And I am thrilled that all of you could be here today as we celebrate the one-year anniversary of Joining Forces.
Now, I have to tell you that when Jill and I first started talking about launching this initiative to honor and support our veterans and military families, we knew that we were going to get a pretty good amount of support, because after all, every American is proud of our men and women in uniform. So we knew that the emotion was there; we knew that the feelings were there. So we knew we were going to get some support, because we all want to show our gratitude for their service.
But the outpouring of support that we have seen over this last year — I mean, the hours logged, the services donated, the love and devotion and offers to help that have poured in from every corner of the country — all of that has far surpassed even our wildest expectations. And that’s a good thing.
And I tell military families all around, that’s really what we want you to know, is that you do live in a grateful nation, and when people are asked on your behalf they are stepping up and they are doing it gladly. Over the past year, more than 1,600 businesses have hired more than 50,000 veterans and spouses, and they pledged to hire at least 160,000 more in the coming years. And I know they’re going to do even more than that — that’s just the pledges that we’ve gotten.
Technology and employment companies like Google, Monster and LinkedIn, they have stepped up to help connect veterans with good jobs. We’ve had state leaders that are passing legislation to make it easier for military spouses to renew their professional licenses and get back to work as their families move from state to state. And we hope that we’re going to see that kind of initiative throughout the country.
Medical schools are training our next generation of health care providers so that they can better care for our military families. The Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Treasury, Labor, they have all made groundbreaking announcements to support our nation’s veterans, our wounded warriors, our caregivers and our military spouses.
Associations of doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants and social workers, they’re working to improve the treatment that they provide for Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injuries.
School professionals are reaching out to our military kids in ways that are so important. High schools have — with high numbers of military students — are adding more Advanced Placement courses so that these kids have the opportunities they deserve to compete for college.
If you watch TV, you’ve seen all of the activity on the airwaves. TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, “Sesame Street” — our favorites — (laughter) — and organizations like NASCAR, AOL, Disney, they’re all sharing stories of military families and using those stories not just to shine a light, but to encourage others to serve.
You’ve got wonderful people like Tom Hanks, Oprah, Steven Spielberg — they starred in a series of very powerful PSAs. And then, of course, the episode that has made me a fan favorite in every household — I am now more popular than the President — because I was on “iCarly.” (Laughter.) There are kids who probably didn’t know I was First Lady, but they know I was on “iCarly.” (Laughter.) And that episode — they focused the entire episode on the experience of military children. It was wonderful. It really got the message out to young people in a way that we could never do on our own.
So over the past year, not a single person that we’ve talked to, that we have approached, has told us that they could not help — not a single person. We’ve asked; they said yes.
And the good thing is, is that once people get started, they just keep coming up with new ideas on their own. We’ll present something, and they double it. They want to do even more. They just keep raising their goals even higher. They just keep figuring out how to get more and more people involved.
A wonderful example is Operation Honor Cards. It’s a wonderful initiative that asks Americans to honor our military families by pledging service of their own. And when we first sat down with this organization last year, they set a goal of getting 3 million hours of pledge service from people all across the country. But then what happened was that by June, they had already doubled that number; and then by November, they hit 10 million hours — just by November. And today, we can announce that we’re at 21 million hours pledged — 21 million hours pledged — with already 30 million total hours served. (Applause.)
Now, that’s really the story of Joining Forces. That’s what we are celebrating today. That’s truly what is going on through Joining Forces. It is the story of a wave of support that spreads across this country, and it’s reaching more communities every single day.
But the real impact of Joining Forces over this past year truly cannot be measured just by a list of accomplishments. It can’t be explained with numbers or hours or dollar amounts. The true measure of our success lies in the lives that we’ve helped to change — all of us, everyone here — those lives, all those moms and dads out there, all of those sons and daughters, like Moranda, all the grandparents who have felt the love and the support of a grateful nation.
They are heroes like my good buddy, Johnny Agbi — Sergeant Agbi. He’s quite a character; got to spend some time with him. He was wounded in Afghanistan, and he’s here with us today. And thanks to Sears and Rebuild Together, who worked together to refit his house for his wheelchair — and Jill and I got to write on his wall — I hope our signatures are still there. Are they there? (Laughter.) All right, that’s good. We got to write on his wall. But thanks to their efforts, Sergeant Agbi can now more easily get in his front door — something as simple as that. He can now move around his home more freely. And hopefully, everything feels just a little bit more like home again.
They are spouses like Ann Wells, who Jill and I got to meet. She’s a nurse who, because of the licensing portability efforts in the states may not have to deal with so much bureaucracy the next time her family moves and she needs to recertify before she can get a job.
They are veterans like Joshua Rassi, from Beaverton, Oregon. Now, in 2007, Sergeant Rassi joined the Army and was trained as a geospatial analyst — you guys probably know what that is, right? You Joint Chief types, right? He was deployed to Iraq, where he was in charge of securing convoys, checking roads for IEDs. He managed many, many soldiers, communicating detailed information throughout his unit. But when he left active duty in May of 2010, he couldn’t find consistent work. He couldn’t find consistent work back home. For more than a year he was out of consistent work. This highly trained soldier applied everywhere, but his searches ended in frustration.
Then last September, he went to one of the Chamber of Commerce’s hiring fairs in Portland. And the Red Cross liked what they saw at this fair. And within a week, Sergeant Rassi had started a new job with the Red Cross as a lab technician. And he has been working for six months. And he is thankful not just for the income, not just because his skills are no longer idle, but because it gives him an opportunity to keep giving back to the country that he loves.
And, as he said — and these are his words — he said, “Part of the reason I joined the military was getting to serve, and at the Red Cross I’m doing the same thing. My big thing in life is making a difference.” And that’s how deeply ingrained service is to our men and women in uniform. That is the greatness that we all feel when we travel the country. That’s why you guys hook us in. It is that ethic of service. It’s that commitment to this country that we want to honor through Joining Forces.
I always say if all of our young people could just get a little dose of what you all have, then they would be just fine. Just fine. This effort is about making an impact. It is about repaying our debt to our veterans and military families. It’s about giving these heroes the opportunities they deserve.
But I want to be clear that we are not here to pat ourselves on the back. We’re not here just to throw a nice party or to list our accomplishments. We’re here to really, truly make a difference for these families who have put everything on the line for all of us. So while today is certainly a time for celebration, it’s also a time to renew our call of action. That’s why we’d like to mark the sand with an anniversary, because it’s time to say this is what we’ve done, but there is so much more to do. It’s time for us to redouble our efforts.
So today, I want to challenge all of you here, and I want to challenge Americans all across the country, to keep raising the bar, just keep raising the bar. Keep bringing more people into the fold — the fold of Joining Forces, the fold of whatever it is you are doing, keep bringing people in. Keep coming up with new ideas.
And one message to all of the military families here today and watching around the country: I want you to know that these are not just words. We are not giving out empty promises — not on my watch, not on Jill’s watch. We’re going to keep working until all of our veterans know that when they hit the job market, their skills be rewarded. We’re not stopping until every military student gets an educational experience that honors their service. We’re not calling it a day until all of our military spouses can rest assured that the next time their family is transferred, they won’t have to leave their job behind.
And we’re going to keep working. We’re going to keep persuading. We’re going to keep driving forward until all of our nation’s military families feel in real and concrete ways the love and support and gratitude that we all hold in our hearts. That is our simple promise to you. And it is one of the best things that we all do with our time.
And as Tom said, this is a forever proposition. This is not a blue state or red state proposition. This is something that we want to make a part of the culture of the United States of America, that every citizen feels this level of gratitude and finds some way to give something back. And if we can do our part by shining a light on this effort, then we will continue to do that.
So I want to thank you all for everything that you have done, for leading the way in your communities across this country. Keep it going. We are so proud of all of you. We are grateful. So God bless you all. And God bless the United States of America. Enjoy the rest of your time here in Washington. (Applause.)