She's best known as America's First Mom, the First Beekeeper, and Veggie Gardener-in-Chief. But first lady Michelle Obama is also getting quite a name in military circles: First Booster for the troops. "Certainly other first ladies and presidents have taken an interest," says Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. "But to make supporting military families [a priority], and not just to make it one of the things you do, this is a game-changer," adds an appreciative Raezer.
Often teamed with her lieutenant, Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, Obama has organized and attended more events for and with military veterans and their families than any previous first lady, according to veterans groups. This year alone, for example, she's participated in 50 events, many out of the eye of the media, and even dedicated the White House Christmas tree to supporting veterans. "There is this sense that this is genuine," says Raezer. "We haven't had this kind of visibility from the White House—ever."
And it's also more than a simple stop-by to drop off gifts at a local Toys for Tots outlet, like she did the week before Christmas, or a quickie visit and speech to welcome home troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama and Biden are leading the charge to encourage businesses to hire veterans, an especially difficult challenge with unemployment sky-high, through an initiative called Joining Forces. Many companies like Google now have programs to hire veterans. The International Franchise Association credits Obama with boosting hiring efforts like its bid to get more veteran couples to become franchise owners. "The first lady's efforts accelerated those programs," says spokesman Matthew Haller.
The first lady is also eager to get Americans unaffected directly by war to pay attention to the military and war families. "That's one of the reasons why Jill and I started our Joining Forces initiative, because we wanted to rally all Americans to honor, recognize, and support our military families," Obama says. Addressing military families at a White House holiday event, she added: "We wanted to make sure that never again would someone have to ask the question, 'What is a Gold Star family and what does that sacrifice mean?' We all should know."
Sean O'Keefe, the former Navy secretary and NASA administrator, adds that Obama "has raised the visibility of the challenges confronted by the families of military service members—frequent relocation, psychological impact of children often raised by single parents due to long deployments, higher incidents of alcohol and drug abuse, and the often difficult access to healthcare." Now CEO of EADS North America, he adds, "Her focus has prompted Americans to be attentive to these consequences endured by the families of those called to national service on behalf of all of us."