The First Lady's homefront mission...Video after jump
First Lady Michelle Obama joined military spouses for a special luncheon today, and brought good news: President Obama's budget for 2011 will boost funding for support programs for military families by 3.3 percent, to a record $8.8 billion, at a time when non-military funding is being frozen for three years.
The annual Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ Luncheon (JAFOWL) was held at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, and brought together spouses from every branch of the military. There was much pomp and circumstance, something Mrs. Obama is familiar with from her life at the White House, where military personnel are a constant presence. The luncheon opened with a color guard ceremony, a soloist singing the National Anthem, and group singing of a medley of the five military branches’ songs. Mrs. Obama sang along.
During the past year, supporting military families has been a special focus for Mrs. Obama, and she's visited military bases, often with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. (At top of post, Mrs. Obama with military spouses; small photo is Mrs. Obama during her remarks)
"From day one, this has been a mission of mine," Mrs. Obama said during her prepared remarks, and added that it is one of the things she's most proud of for her first year as First Lady.
"The quality of the lives of our military and their families means a great deal because in the history of our all-volunteer force, we’ve never asked so much of so few," Mrs. Obama said. "My husband and his administration have worked to do right by our armed forces and their families…to be there for you like you have been there for us…to lighten your load as you have lightened ours."
In 2009, with her staff and advisers, Mrs. Obama conducted a series of round table discussions with military spouses, including those married to the top brass, as well as the rank and file. Many were at the luncheon today, and Mrs. Obama was interrupted frequently by applause.
"These conversations gave us critical guidance and insight for our subsequent visits to bases and military communities around the country," Mrs. Obama said.
White House aides told media that the new funding for programs to support military families arose from a "team effort" that includes President Obama and the Department of Defense, and wouldn't identify any single program or funding that Mrs. Obama had particularly lobbied for, but noted that it's part of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' effort to make supporting military families a core part of the program.
The new budget will increase funds for counseling and support for spouses and families to $1.9 billion, which will include families of National Guard and Reservists. For military children, there's $1.3 billion earmarked to improve childcare, a critical issue because many military spouses are also working parents. And those working parents get another kind of help, too: There's an $84 million increase in funding for career development, including tuition assistance and a federal internship program. Mrs. Obama received cheers as she detailed the budget.
Mrs. Obama also announced an undisclosed amount of new money for youth programs. As both a mother and First Lady, Mrs. Obama is well aware of the impact adults' careers have on their children's' lives, and she noted in her remarks that being part of a military family causes much anxiety for children., including trouble at school and being at higher risk for depression.
“We cannot forget that military kids also serve in their own special way,” Mrs. Obama said. “They’re just like any other child in this country – except their lives are turned upside down every time their mom or dad is gone half-way around the world, risking their lives so that all our children can enjoy the freedoms of our democracy....As a wife, as a mom, I simply cannot imagine the depths of their pain and loss."
There's also an undisclosed amount in the budget for new Department of Defense Schools, "from Georgia to Germany," which Mrs. Obama said would was part of a major effort over the next five years to renovate or replace more than half of the Department of Defense schools, which will benefit tens of thousands of children from military families.
To close her remarks, Mrs. Obama told the story of Brittany Henline, whose father, Staff Sergeant Robert Henline, was critically injured while deployed in Iraq. He had third-degree burns over 2/3 of his body, and needed multiple surgeries. Brittany cared for her two siblings and took care of things on the homefront so her mother, Connie, could travel to Texas and take care of Sgt. Henline while he recovered. (Above: A longshot of the luncheon, during Mrs. Obama's remarks)
"Overnight, she [Brittany] went from being a 15-year-old teenager to a mom for her younger brother and sister," Mrs. Obama said. "She had to get her driver's license early so she could run errands and do the shopping. She made the meals, she did the laundry, she helped with homework -- yes, a 15-year-old. And at night, her younger siblings would crawl into Brittany's bed and seek the security that they would get from their mother."
When Sgt. Henline had recovered, Operation Homefront named Brittany their Military Child of the Year, and the entire Henline family visited the White House.
"That is the strength and the spirit and courage that our military families display every day," Mrs. Obama added. "You put your own priorities aside, you take care of one another, and you take care of this nation."
Mrs. Obama pledged that she would "use every ounce of her energy and being" to make sure that America takes care of military families, the way they take care of each other.
White House aides declined to reveal what was actually on the lunch menu, but the First Lady stayed for the entire event, and she was seated at Table 1, with Becky Gates, wife of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to her left, and Sandee Cartwright, wife of Gen. James Cartwright, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to her right. Deborah Mullen, who chaired the luncheon, wife of Adm. Jim Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also at the table. As she left, Mrs. Obama was presented with a box of chocolates, each stamped with the emblems of the five branches of the military. At the start of her remarks, she also joked with the spouses about relaxing and enjoying themselves with luncheon wine:
"All right, everyone, take a seat, and have a glass of wine -- all right, because I'm going to sell you guys out. They were passing around a little glass, and I was like, what's that?" Mrs. Obama said. "So please feel free. Don't wait till I leave when the desserts come out to get the wine."
A full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks at the luncheon is here.
White House aides also announced that during the President's State of the Union speech tomorrow night, six members of the military will be seated in Mrs. Obama's box: An active duty Army sergeant (male) First Class just back from Iraq; a recently retired Iraq vet (male), who had been shot in the fact, and is now working for the Dept of Transportation in Ft. Collins, CO; the spouse of a Wisconsin National Guardsman; and the two Ft. Hood military police – Sgt. Kim Munley and Sgt. Mark Todd – who took down the Ft. Hood shooter; and a USMC female vet, also a military spouse.
Mrs. Obama is only the second First Lady to ever speak at the luncheon; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed JAFOWL while she was first lady. JAFOWL began in 1977, when the officers’ wives’ clubs from the five military services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard) formed a committee to arrange the annual event, in an effort to promote the mingling of military spouses from different branches of service.
Speakers at previous JAFOWL luncheons include comedian Bob Hope, satirist Art Buchwald, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Ross Perot, General Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, and in 2005, President George W. Bush.
*Photo at top of post by Samantha Appleton/White House; others via Getty