First lady wants you: to help military families

AP News
Posted: Apr 12, 2011 4:59 PM
First lady wants you: to help military families

Drawing in everyone from Best Buy's Geek Squad to the Afghan war commander fired by her husband, Michelle Obama ramped up her campaign to support military families on Tuesday and prodded everybody else in the country to get in on the act.

The first lady, joined in the East Room by the president and Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill, launched "Joining Forces," an initiative to help military families who face a long list of unique challenges, such as moving around a lot and having a parent or spouse facing wartime perils far away.

Mrs. Obama didn't dangle federal grants or incentives, rather a call to be civic-minded.

"This is a challenge to every segment of American society not to simply say thank you but to mobilize, take action and make a real commitment to supporting our military families," Mrs. Obama said.

President Barack Obama, for his part, said it was time to do more to support "the force behind the force."

"They, too, are the reason we've got the finest military in the world," he said.

Over the past year, Mrs. Obama's primary focus has been an ambitious campaign against childhood obesity, in which she urged businesses, non-profits, school and others to get involved in fighting the problem. Now Mrs. Obama, working closely with Mrs. Biden, wants to use that same model to tackle military family issue.

As a down payment, the White House released a list of companies and groups that already have signed on to the effort.

For example, Best Buy's Geek Squad will help military families use technology to connect with loved ones who are deployed, Sears and WalMart will offer transfers to employees who are military spouses who have to move, and the national PTA will expand efforts to help military children adjust to new schools.

Mrs. Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press, said she first got to know about the special challenges facing military families during the 2008 presidential campaign, as she met with military spouses while participating in roundtable discussions with women.

"I was so shocked by the fact that I didn't recognize those voices, that those stories were so new to me," she said. "I thought, I can't be alone, and these voices need to be lifted up."

Mrs. Obama said she decided then that it was appropriate to use the White House "megaphone" to lift the "cloak of invisibility" that too often leaves families struggling on their own.

Mrs. Biden, who joined Mrs. Obama for the interview, said the two will know the initiative is a success when support for military families "is integrated into the culture of America" and becomes second-nature.

With the next presidential campaign getting under way, military families are a motherhood-and-apple pie issue that can only help burnish the image of a first lady whose patriotism was called into question by critics on the right during the last campaign.

The first lady said she's ready for whatever the coming campaign brings, but hasn't given it much thought yet.

She said the military families initiative is something that motivates her "to want to do this job really well.... That's what you learn when you campaign. You learn what people need and then you can actually do something."

The effort was welcomed by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These families have been sacrificing for almost 10 years," said Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff. "It's time for the rest of America to help shoulder their load."

The White House has announced that retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired by the president, will be part of a three-person advisory panel that oversees the effort from the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank. McChrystal was ousted by Obama last summer after he and his aides were quoted making dismissive comments about their civilian bosses in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

Patty Shinseki, wife of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, also will be part of the advisory panel, along with a third person yet to be named.

White House aides said the Obama administration already had taken a number of steps to ensure the government does more to support military families, such as setting up an Office of Service Member Affairs in the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help military families with special financial challenges.

The first lady and Mrs. Biden plan a two-day, four-state tour to promote the initiative starting Wednesday in North Carolina and including stops in Texas, Ohio and Colorado.

At various stops along the way, they will bring in celebrities including Jessica Simpson, Nick Jonas, Martha Stewart, Sesame Street's Elmo, and the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters to generate interest in the effort.