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'Step Up Forever' for MilFams

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, discuss the accomplishments of the Joining Forces campaign as its one-year anniversary approaches.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, discuss the accomplishments of the Joining Forces campaign as its one-year anniversary approaches.

WASHINGTON -- As First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden mark the first anniversary of their “Joining Forces” campaign this week, the two say they will continue to solidify its successes so a structured effort to help military families is a permanent part of American culture.

The pair reflected on the campaign’s success during an April 6 interview here with American Forces Press Service.

“This has been a phenomenal first year,” Obama said. “But the truth is, Jill and I have been working this issue since our husbands took the oath of office” in January 2009.

Obama and Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden, said they’ve been amazed by the outpouring of support by American civilians. More than 100 companies have committed to participate in the administration’s goal of the private sector hiring of 100,000 spouses and veterans. They also noted a Joining Forces commitment from the nation’s medical colleges to better train civilian health-care providers in caring for war veterans and their families.

“We’ve seen Americans -- 13 million of them -- step up to pledge hours of service,” Obama said. “It’s been phenomenal to see a grateful nation step up to help military men and women who sacrifice so much for us.”

Biden, a community college professor, said she’s been gratified by progress in the education arena. Teachers colleges have incorporated military family matters into curricula to help teachers-to-be understand the unique challenges their students from military families face, she said. And more and more school systems recognize course credits of military family members who must relocate frequently, she added.

Teachers are doing small things that make a big difference, Biden said. Some conduct parent-teacher conferences with deployed parents on the Internet. Others -- as the teacher of Biden’s granddaughter did when the Bidens’ son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq -- display photos of deployed parents to help children cope.

Obama and Biden said they have felt privileged to meet with military families across the nation.

“Every American should have the privilege of getting to know a military community, a family, a unit, because these men and women are the best this country has,” the first lady said. “I’m always in awe of what they are able to manage, what they sacrifice, and doing it with such grace and poise. It’s been a gift to shine light on these military men and women.”

Biden also spoke of the resilience of military family members.

“They face a lot of difficulties and challenges in their lives,” she said, noting that most military members relocate at least 10 times in their career. “That’s tough on a family -- to pack up, lose friends, make new friends, get new sports teams -- but they never complain. They just feel it’s part of their job.”

Obama said she expects the campaign’s second year will continue progress in those areas and more. A major goal, she said, will be to build on successes in professional license portability for military spouses. Thirteen states already have passed legislation to make it easier for military spouses who work in fields such as teaching, nursing, real estate, and social work to transfer their professional licenses easily from one state to another, and 13 more have pending legislation, she said.

The outpouring of support for the Joining Forces campaign has proven that Americans want to help military families and need the structure the campaign provides, Biden said.

“Americans want to help. All they need is a little direction,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘OK, give us ideas.’ ”

Obama said she expects the campaign to endure indefinitely.

“Our husbands, and Jill and I, we’re committed to making sure this becomes part of our culture,” she said. “I know the president and the vice president are working with the [Defense and Veterans Affairs departments] to set up a structure to ensure this continues, regardless of who’s in office.

“These are lifelong commitments,” she added. “As a Blue Star mom, Jill is always in, and I consider myself an honorary Blue Star mom. … This is a forever issue for us.”

The important thing for civilians to understand, Obama said, is that these issues don’t end when wars end. “That’s when the hard work begins for many of these families,” she said. “When someone is on active duty, they’re still transferring. Their kids are still going from school to school to school.”

The first lady noted that 1 percent of Americans serve in the all-volunteer force to protect everyone else. “So, we have to step up forever,” she said. “I think our country is ready to do that. It just helps to have a structure like Joining Forces.”

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