Remarks by the First Lady at the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013 Bill Signing
1:55 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Good afternoon. It is truly a pleasure to be here in Maryland today.
But before we get started, I want to take a moment to say that our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Boston. My husband continues to monitor the situation, and he has directed the full resources of the federal government to assist state and local authorities as they investigate this horrific act.
And what happened on Monday was a reminder that in times of crisis, here in America we respond with courage, and grit, and selflessness. That’s exactly what we saw from the people of Boston, and from all those who rushed to aid the victims, especially the police officers and firefighters, the first responders, and our men and women in uniform.
And that is the spirit of Boston, but it is also the spirit of this country. And in many ways, that’s the spirit of service and sacrifice that we are here to honor today.
So I want to thank Governor O’Malley for hosting us, but also for his tremendous leadership for the state of Maryland and for all of his efforts on behalf of our troops, veterans, and military families.
I also want to thank Lieutenant Governor Brown; the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary Mabus; and all of the servicemembers from Fort Meade and the United States Naval Academy who are here with us today.
And I’d like to recognize all of the Maryland state legislators: Attorney General Gansler, Mayor Cohen, the representatives we have here from veterans service organizations and the University of Maryland, and to all of the military family members who are joining us today. Welcome, and thank you for being here.
And, finally, I want to thank Senior Chief Hite and his wonderful family who I got to meet -- Mom and Dad are here, and his handsome son, who I will embarrass -- (laughter) -- but we are proud of you all. But I want to thank you all for your service to this country, because the truth is, is that every family member serves, and every time I meet a servicemember, a veteran, I don’t just thank him or her, I think children and parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters, because everyone in some way is part of that service. And thank you for sharing your story with us today.
Two years ago, Jill Biden and I launched Joining Forces in large part because we’d heard too many stories like that of Senior Chief Hite’s. We had heard the stories of military spouses like Janelle Gray, whose husband serves in the Air Force at Fort Meade.
Janelle was a professional counselor for seven years in Minnesota and North Dakota. But when she and her husband were transferred here to Maryland, she found out that she’d either have to wait three years or take additional coursework and get extra training before she could get back to work.
And then there were all the veterans we’d heard from -- the Army medics who couldn’t get jobs as EMTs; the Marine welders who couldn’t land a manufacturing job here; or the convoy drivers who couldn’t get hired to drive a semi.
Earlier today, I was over at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I met with some wonderful individuals who are here today in the healthcare professions who have served this country for years -- even decades -- and have mastered so many highly technical, high-demand skills.
But even with all that experience, these men and women wouldn’t even be considered for entry-level jobs in their fields because they didn’t have the right civilian credentials. And all of this is happening after we have already asked so much of our troops.
We have asked them to risk their lives in combat, manage dozens of peers, operate complicated machinery, oversee millions of dollars of assets, and save lives on the battlefield. And then, when they come home, we’re also asking them to repeat months of training for skills they’ve already mastered. So we have to ask ourselves: How does this make sense?
And the same is true for our military spouses. We’re asking them to juggle a full-time job and their family’s finances, and the entire household all alone while their spouse is deployed overseas. And we’re asking them to move their families to new communities and new states every couple of years. And after they do all that, we’re also asking them to wait months and pay hundreds of dollars in fees just to be able to continue their careers?
That’s just not right. And let me be clear -- this is about more than just eliminating a few bureaucratic headaches for these men and women. This is about improving the financial security for thousands of military families. It’s about giving veterans and their spouses an opportunity to build their careers and create a better future for their children.
So with all of that on the line, we knew we had to get this fixed. And that meant we had to turn to state leaders like so many of you here in this room, because you all are the only ones who can make an impact on these licensing issues.
And I’m here today not just because Annapolis is beautiful -- which it is, and I wish I could stay and have ice cream and crab cakes -- (laughter) -- but I would clog up the city. I will be back. (Laughter.) But I’m here today because here in Maryland, you all have done just that.
You have come together to take a bold step forward on behalf of our troops, veterans, and military families. And by doing so, your state is joining a growing list of states that are addressing this issue.
Since last year, when I spoke to our nation’s governors about the issues facing military spouses, the number of states that have passed laws to help those spouses has more than tripled -- from 11 to 36. And since we spoke with the governors again at the end of February of this year, this time about veterans issues, 13 states, including Maryland, have acted to help our veterans earn credentials.
And let me tell you, your bill here in Maryland is one of the best bills that we have seen in this entire country. You all are tackling three big issues all at once. You’re helping our veterans obtain professional credentials. You’re helping them earn college credit. And you’re making it easier for military spouses to continue their careers as they transfer to your state.
So I want to say a huge thank you to Governor O’Malley for his leadership on this effort and to all of the legislators who have made our military families a priority. You all didn’t just ask yourselves, can we do this. You asked yourselves, how can we do it right; how can we serve our men and women in uniform as well as they’ve served us.
But I also want to make an important point here: This is not simply about patriotism and repaying our debt to our servicemen and women. This is also about putting highly skilled individuals to work in communities all across Maryland and throughout the country. It’s about strengthening our hospitals and our schools, and making our businesses more productive and dynamic.
That’s why the bill that’s being signed into law today is so important. And I want you to know that we’re working at the federal level to address these issues as well. For example, my husband has championed programs to help our troops get their civilian credentials in areas like manufacturing, medicine, and transportation before they leave the Armed Forces. And I want to recognize the Navy, in particular, for leading the way on this issue with sailors earning more than 80,000 credentials in the last six years.
So all of these efforts couldn’t be more important as we look at what’s coming in the years ahead. With the Iraq war over, the war in Afghanistan winding down, more than a million servicemembers are going to be hanging up their uniforms and transitioning back to civilian life. And that comes on top of the hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses already out there looking for work.
So even though we’ve made a lot of progress on veterans employment over the past few years, as a country, we still have a lot more work to do. And that means we need to redouble our efforts across the board. We need more businesses to make big, bold commitments to hire and train our veterans and military spouses. We need more hospitals and colleges and employers from every sector to recognize our veterans’ and military spouses’ unique skills and experiences, and give them a fair shot at a job. We need every single state that has not already acted on these licensing and credentialing issues to follow Maryland’s lead and clear away every unnecessary obstacle facing our veterans and military spouses.
And while these bills are a wonderful first step, we can’t rest until we’ve worked with our licensing boards, colleges, and universities to make sure these bills are fully implemented so that our veterans and military spouses get the credentials and the jobs they need.
And if we all step up in this way, if we all keep coming together on this issue, we will be sending a powerful message of love and support that makes a real, concrete difference for our military families. We’ll be helping them build their careers, support their families, and find new ways to serve this country, which they so desperately want to do. And that’s what Joining Forces is about. And that’s why we’re not going to stop working until every state has enacted legislation to address these issues. We’re not going to stop until every single military family in America gets the honor and support they’ve earned.
And so to all the military families here today, I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that we are going to do whatever it takes to make that happen. We are in this for the long haul. And we are bound and determined to repay your service and sacrifice with service and sacrifice of our own.
So to our servicemembers and military families, thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for everything you have done for this country, and everything you will continue to do in the years ahead. And to all the elected officials, to the leaders from the University of Maryland, to all the people of this great state, thank you for stepping up to show your support for these brave men and women.
I look forward to continuing our work together in the months and years ahead. Thank you, God bless, and let’s get some signing done. (Applause.)
2:05 P.M. EDT