WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Tuesday launched a national campaign for U.S. military families that calls on companies, individuals, civic and religious groups, and schools to find ways help veterans, reservists, spouses and their children navigate work, school, psychological stress and day-to-day life.
Think of the new Joining Forces initiative as the military version of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity. It’s a largely non-legislative effort that puts the imprimatur of the White House and Cabinet agencies behind a nonpartisan cause and rewards organizations that step up by publicizing and praising their efforts.
The initiative is meant to outlast the war in Afghanistan and Obama’s presidency, and to create a permanent support network for a volunteer force that these days is only about 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Walmart, Sam’s Club, Sears, Kmart, Siemens, Sears Holding, Best Buy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups announced commitments as part of Tuesday’s launch. These include promises to hire service members and spouses and to facilitate job transfers for those who must move as part of their service. They also include initiatives for job training and financial assistance.
The president’s wife and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, announced the effort at the White House with their husbands.
Michelle Obama said the initiative is “a challenge to every segment of American society.”
Jill Biden said individual Americans can do their part by arranging carpools, recreational activities, free professional services, compassion and small acts of kindness to the military families in their communities. “Each American has the ability to make a difference in the life of a military family,” she said.
The women are taking the campaign on the road starting today with events scheduled at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, followed by stops later this week in Texas, Colorado and Ohio.
Many U.S. communities with a large bases already know the importance of reaching out to military families, said Deborah Bonito, the wife of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. She helped start a local initiative when her husband was Anchorage mayor.
Bonito, a military brat whose father served in Vietnam, was moved to action when a Stryker brigade from Anchorage’s Fort Richardson was deployed to Iraq about seven years ago. More than 50 soldiers from the base died within a year and a half, Bonito said, and she wanted to help grieving families.
“Every day in the paper, I was reading about it and crying about it,” she said in an interview. “Unless you’ve served in the military, or have family in the military, you don’t have an understanding of what these kids or families are going through.”
Her program focused on getting young military families involved in the community. Many were young mothers, often from the South, baffled about how to handle Anchorage’s snowy winters and isolated on the base.
Often, small gestures meant the most, Bonito said. Her program established a van service to help families get to the grocery store if they were concerned about driving in the snow. The Anchorage Fire Department set up an off-duty list of firefighters who military families could call for help in shoveling snow if someone in their household was deployed.
Bonito praised the White House initiative, saying she thought that Michelle Obama had spent a lot of time behind the scenes learning about military families and pushing for better pay and benefits.
“There are things we can do as a community to wrap our arms around them, and give them support,” she said. “There are thousands of people who want to help.”