Michelle Obama, Laura Bush headline conference led by SPA at the National Archives

First ladies urge the next commander in chief to make servicemembers and their families a top priority

Michelle Obama, Laura Bush headline conference led by SPA at the National Archives

It’s rare to see a sitting and former first lady in one room, but it’s equally uncommon to hear them share their own stories as spouses of the commander in chief.

That’s exactly what happened at the National Archives on Friday morning, where first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush emphasized their shared support for military service members and their families at the School of Public Affairs sponsored conference America’s First Ladies: In Service to our Nation. The private event was part of an ongoing series on the legacy of the nation’s first ladies spearheaded by Anita McBride, the event’s coordinator and SPA’s executive in residence.

“This theme today was the thread that binds all first ladies together because no matter what issue that they choose while they are in the White House, they are all spouse of the commander in chief,” McBride told The Eagle following the event. “That’s the thread that binds each of them together and the work that they have done to support service members, veterans and military families is something that from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama and beyond will connect them.”

A shared commitment to America’s armed forces

Obama and Bush have both been outspoken advocates for service members and their families, specifically with Bush’s Military Service Initiative and Obama’s Joining Forces Initiative. Both women shared how their “luxurious” lives in the White House contrasted with those of soldiers serving overseas. The dedication of those soldiers reaffirmed their commitment to military families.

“I will always champion these men and women and their families as long as I can breathe,” Obama said.

Obama specifically highlighted her military spouse reciprocity project, which she worked on with Dr. Jill Biden. Military spouses with professional licenses, such as aestheticians and social workers, used to be forced to apply for relicensing each time they relocated, which in many cases is as frequent as every two years for a military family. Now, thanks to Obama’s project, all 50 states have military spousal licensing reciprocity which allows spouses to carry their licenses from state to state.

“And what we have seen is that when you ask, people step up without hesitation,” Obama said of Joining Forces as a whole. “And that's the power of our platforms, is that a lot of times, if Laura or I ask for help, people are very receptive.”

Bush described how her experience serving as first lady during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has driven her efforts to help military service members and their families. She recalled before the audience how her daughters Laura and Jenna returned home to the White House from college the weekend after the attacks to be with their family. Bush has since made it her mission to support the 2.5 million post-9/11 veterans.

“And think about the asset that is for our country,” Bush said. “These people who chose to serve, who volunteered to serve, and now they want to come home. And it's up to us, the rest of us, to figure out how we can help them keep serving in our communities and make a life with themselves that they're happy with, and deal with the trauma that a lot of them have, the trauma of war.”

Panel examines the historical relationship between the armed forces and the first lady

First ladies have supported the armed forces since the days of Martha Washington, and the panelists discussed that relationship for each first lady through the early 1970’s. The panel was moderated by political commentator Cokie Roberts, and featured White House historian William Seale, Saint Joseph’s University professor Katherine Sibley, and C-SPAN President Susan Swain.

The panel disbanded and retired Capt. Will Reynolds took the stage to introduce the two first ladies. Obama and Bush, who attended the event to provide their own experiences where the panelists couldn’t, were interviewed on stage by Bob Woodruff. Woodruff is an ABC war correspondent who was injured by a roadside bomb covering the Iraq war in 2006.

Looking forward, both first ladies urged the next administration to consider its obligation to military service members and their families. Obama particularly called upon veteran’s organizations to “keep the pressure” on the next occupants of the White House to continue the work of Bush and herself.

“Hold them accountable,” Obama said. “Ask the same important questions that you've asked of these presidencies to make sure that we never go back to the time of Vietnam War, where a veteran comes home and they're afraid to even identify as a service member.”


For a full transcript of the first ladies’ remarks, please click here.

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