First lady lauds 'A force of families'

  • Published
  • By Terri Moon Cronk
  • American Forces Press Service
The nation's military is built and sustained on the strength of families, First Lady Michelle Obama told the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 2011 and their families at a banquet last night in West Point, N.Y., on May 20, the eve of graduation ceremonies.

No matter where their careers take them, Mrs. Obama told the graduating cadets, their families will be right alongside them, "because our force is a force of families."

The first lady reminded the cadets that regardless of their backgrounds, they've all had someone who taught them the values and lessons that will sustain them when times get tough or they're unsure of what's ahead.

"I want you to know that these people will always be there for you," she said. "As I've seen in my own life and heard from troops all across this world, your family will be your rock, whether they're right next to you or across an ocean."

Family, Mrs. Obama told the audience, has a special meaning for the cadets as emerging leaders for the Army and the nation. She singled out Cadet Russ Burgin, noting he was inspired by his father, who continued to work to support his family while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

"Today, his dad is cancer-free, and Cadet Burgin is here at West Point, the best place he could imagine to live out the values that his father demonstrated every day," the first lady said.

She also recognized Cadet Woo Do, a first-generation American. "Growing up," Mrs. Obama said, "he'd accompany his grandfather on doctor visits as a translator, and that's how he developed his passion for medicine - a passion that will take him to Harvard Medical School next year."

Many of the graduating cadets came from military backgrounds, Mrs. Obama said, including Cadets Christina Veney and Megan Snook, who each have multiple family members who have graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. "And (Cadet) Erin Anthony," she added, can trace her family's military history to the 1600s."

All of the cadets, the first lady said, succeeded at the academy in part because of the support they received from their families.

"Without your families, you never would have had the strength to tackle Beast Barracks while your peers were enjoying a final, carefree summer before college," Mrs. Obama said. "They've been there for you for every moment of triumph and every moment of challenge. Their unending love and support provide the very foundation that allows you to stand strong today."

The values the cadets brought to West Point are reflected in their success, Mrs. Obama noted.

"It is very clear to me that you all reflect everything we hope to see in ourselves and our country - firmness of character and strength of heart, a strong body and a ferocious mind, a devotion to country and to family," she said.

The cadets knew what they were facing as they made their way toward graduation, the first lady said, praising them for pressing on.

"You have seen cadets from the classes ahead of you pack their bags for Afghanistan or Iraq. ... You hear updates not only from headlines and newsfeeds, but from emails and cell phone calls from friends," she said. "You've visited wounded friends, you've heard the bugle's call each time a graduate of this academy has fallen in our wars. Yet you stayed anyway."

Speaking to the parents at the family banquet, Mrs. Obama said she could only imagine their feeling of pride.

"But as a parent, I can also imagine what else might be on your mind tonight," she added. "All of you read the news. All of you understand what your children have signed up for. You know what their next assignment is, and in the back of your mind, you're wondering where the assignments after that might take them."

Their concerns are natural, she said, and are a testament to parental strength, patriotism and unconditional love.

As the graduating cadets move on to their military careers, Mrs. Obama said, they will find that family will continue to be an important part of their lives and culture. Today's military families have husbands and wives both pursuing careers and raising children, often still finding time for night school, she said, and their children move from town to town, always adjusting to new schools and making new friends.

Parents of service members wake up every morning and pray their child comes home safely, she continued, and Gold Star families honor the memory of their loved ones while channeling their strength into serving others.

"Graduates, here's why your role is so important," Mrs. Obama said. "You'll serve not just for yourselves, and not just for your own families, but for these families, too. You'll help your troops deal with the joy of a newborn and the disappointment of not being in the delivery room. You'll help a soldier cope with a family emergency halfway around the world. You'll see again and again that those family relationships are just as important to a soldier's success as anything that you can provide them in the field."

The leadership and support the troops need also is something their families need, the first lady said, because they sacrifice and serve the nation alongside anyone who wears the U.S. uniform. While Americans see troops in uniform at a grocery store or airport and can thank them, she noted, family members just blend in.

And because only 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, said the first lady added, many Americans don't know many military families.

"They aren't familiar with the resilience it takes to get through a long deployment," she said. "They don't know the courage it takes simply to turn on the evening news. They don't fully realize the strength you need to move your family for the fourth or fifth or sixth time in a decade."

She assured cadets and their families that while most people don't know what it's like to serve, or how to help, they do want to help.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, calls that support "the Sea of Goodwill," the first lady said, adding that she and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have channeled that willingness to help into the national "Joining Forces" campaign, calling on Americans to recognize, honor and support military families -- not only with just words, but also with deeds.

"We want your families to feel these efforts on the ground, in your daily lives," the first lady said. "We're working across sectors, asking everyone from government and business to faith communities and school districts to make a commitment to you and your families."

People across the country from all walks of life already have stepped up to help, including many large corporations and nonprofit organizations, Mrs. Obama said.

"When I meet a member of Congress or a powerful chief executive officer and ask for their help, I have been blown away by their enthusiasm," she said. "They all want to help, they're excited to do it, and we haven't had one single person tell us no."

The country is asking a lot of the graduates once they pin on the gold bars of a second lieutenant, Mrs. Obama said.

"We're not asking you to do it alone," she added, noting that in addition to the support of their families and friends, they have millions of Americans behind them as well.

"From my husband right on down through the ranks of this military, from those powerful CEOs to all of the teachers, clergy and neighbors you deal with every day, we all want to give something back to you and your families because we are inspired by you," she said. "We're inspired by the character reflected in your acceptance to this academy, and by the courage to serve during a time of war."

The first lady urged the graduating cadets to go forward with confidence in their education and in the nation.

"Alongside everything else you have learned and experienced here at the academy, the calculus and Shakespeare, the intramurals and leadership training, I ask you to remember that family has always been a centerpiece of our American story. Remember that this country and all of its citizens stand ready to serve you and your families," she said. "And I want you to remember that as long as we all do our duty, as long as we all serve with honor, then the fate of this country will never be in doubt."