National campaign aims to give military families a hand

McClatchy NewspapersApril 12, 2011 

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 and their families 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 Barack 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.

Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Sears, Kmart, Siemens, Sears Holdings, 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 their 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, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, announced the effort at an event at the White House with their husbands.

Michelle Obama said the initiative was "a challenge to every segment of American society." Jill Biden said individual Americans could do their part by arranging car pools, recreational activities and free professional services for the military families in their communities and showing them compassion and small acts of kindness. "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 Wednesday, with events scheduled at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, followed by stops later this week in Texas, Colorado and Ohio.

At Fort Campbell, a sprawling Army installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, more than 50,000 family members utilize child development services, after-school programs and the eight schools on post. Its staff welcomed news of the new family-focused initiative.

"We're on the right track," said Rick Rzepka, a spokesman for the base. "People realize now that the soldier is half of the Army's team and the other half of the team is the families."

Many U.S. communities with 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 the mayor of Anchorage.

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 the families of those who lost loved ones.

"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 by how to handle Anchorage's snowy winters, and isolated on the base.

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, and this just gives them a focal point."

The Joining Forces initiative is to be coordinated through the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based research center. An advisory board will include retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was forced from his post last year as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after he and his aides mocked Obama administration officials in remarks published by Rolling Stone magazine, and Patty Shinseki, a longtime military spouse who's married to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Siemens Corp. said it would reserve at least 300 job openings in its clean technology section for veterans and would help train them.

The Society for Human Resource Management said it would urge its quarter-million members to create workplace environments that were supportive of military spouses.

Cisco and Futures Inc. are expanding a pilot project called the U.S. Military Pipeline initiative, to connect veterans and spouses with education, mentoring and job resources. An online service, Indeed Military, is to serve as a jobs board for military families.

The initiative is working with PTAs, children's publishers and schools on a variety of partnerships, including expanding advanced placement and math and science courses to high schools that have a large percentage of military families.

WebMD will build online resource centers for military families and their health care providers.

Best Buy's Geek Squad will teach military families how to use technology to communicate while they're separated because of deployments.

Television networks, AOL, celebrities, NASCAR, Major League Baseball and other organizations will take part in public awareness campaigns related to the initiative.

(Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)

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