MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen triggered critics on both sides of the aisle when she said that stay-at-home mom Ann Romney, quote "never worked a day in her life," unquote. We're going to see how that comment plays with our panel of moms in just a few minutes. That's our regular parenting conversation.
But first, we have a newsmaker interview with perhaps the most visible mom in the United States, First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama wears many hats in the White House. She is of course the president's closest confidant. She's the mother of two young daughters and as first lady, she's taken on signature issues herself. Perhaps the best known is her Let's Move campaign which has brought attention to the epidemic of childhood obesity.
Mrs. Obama has been encouraging children and families to eat right, get plenty of exercise, and she's also encouraging family schools and neighborhoods to support healthy lifestyles for kids. Perhaps less well known, though, is Mrs. Obama's work on behalf of military service members and their families. For the last year, she's partnered with Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joseph Biden, for a program the White House calls Joining Forces.
It's a campaign aimed at helping the families of the 2.2 million Americans who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke with me earlier from her office in the East Wing of the White House. Mrs. Obama, thank you so much for joining us.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: We're guessing that a lot of people will have heard you talk about the work that you've done with the Let's Move campaign.
MARTIN: But I'm not sure that everybody's heard about how you got interested in the whole issue of military families. I think your father served in the military before you were born.
OBAMA: Right, right.
MARTIN: So could you just remind us how you got interested in this whole issue?
OBAMA: Yes. That's - I think I'm probably more typical of the average American who doesn't have a connection to a military community. You know, because truly 1 percent of this country serves and protects the freedoms of the other 99 percent of us. So many of us don't have that connection. Fortunately, Jill Biden does. She's a Blue Star Mom. Their son was in the National Guard - or is in the - in - is a Reservist.
So when we came together, we kind of connected around this issue. But for me, I was exposed over the course of the campaign. When I was out there meeting with a lot of working moms and whenever I would gather a group of women, there was always a voice that was unfamiliar to me.
And it was the voice of the military spouse, oftentimes a woman, oftentimes working, many times in a position where they've had to move every two or three years, where their kids have had to change schools multiple times, people dealing - families dealing with multiple deployments, dealing with the stresses of reconnection.
And for me, I just sort of thought, you know what? I don't know these stories. And if I don't know them, what's going on with the rest of the country? But these stories moved me in a way that I didn't expect, because all these people were proud, resilient. They were handling more than many of us do in a day - over the course of a week - in a day. They're just efficient people.
And I thought, you know, if I get in this position to be first lady, I want to be that voice, because more of us need to know these stories, and we as a country, we need to be stepping up to make sure that these families feel the pride and the gratitude that all of us naturally feel, but most Americans don't know how to help.
MARTIN: As we are speaking to you now, it's about a year since you and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, launched this initiative, which you call Joining Forces. Looking back over the year, where do you think you've made the most progress and is there anything that you're disappointed with, that you'd hope you two would've made more progress in?
OBAMA: No, in fact, we knew that we'd get a good response because, as I said, you know, there is no American that isn't grateful for what these men and women do, and their families. But we've just been overwhelmed by the response. Employment has really been a source of excitement, because we've called upon the private sector to step up and find ways to hire veterans and military spouses. And they have just gone above and beyond.
The president asked for a commitment of, I think, 100,000 jobs for veterans and military spouses over the next couple of years. And we announced during the tour last week that we have gotten more than 60,000 jobs and we're well on our way to just crashing that goal out of the water.
Because what businesses are understanding is that these men and women are some of the most highly trained resources that we have in this country. And it's not just about doing what's right, but it's doing what makes good business sense for them.
So we're starting to see, as the economy improves, that the unemployment rate among veterans and military spouses - we're seeing some improvement in those numbers. And that's a good thing. I mean, that's the least we should do for these men and women, is to make sure they come back to jobs that pay, to career opportunities, that these spouses are able to add a second income to their households because these families do not have a lot of resources.
So employment has been particularly gratifying in terms of our accomplishments But people have stepped up far beyond what I could have ever imagined. So we're pleased with the first year's results.
MARTIN: One issue that we've been reporting on at NPR is this whole question of traumatic brain injuries. The Department of Defense says that just under a quarter-million veterans who have served just since the year 2000 are suffering from these traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs. And in some cases, you know, people may present as healthy, but then they experience, you know, cognitive difficulties and sort of other sort of long-term health effects.
And the other issue we've been reporting on is the difficulty some of these veterans have been having, and their families, in navigating a complicated, you know, bureaucracy just in order to get their benefits, in order to get sort of taken care of. Are the families that you're talking to talking to you about this? Or do you feel that your administration is making progress on this score?
OBAMA: Absolutely. These are things that we hear from military families everywhere we go. But on PTSD, the thing that I want to make sure people understand is that the vast majority of veterans and military families aren't dealing with any kind of mental health. But there are - these are what are called the invisible wounds of this war. And many times they don't present.
We got a commitment just last week that three million nurses are going to be trained to better identify these signs because, you know, when these troops come home and they become veterans and they go back into the civilian community, they're not always going through the VA system for medical care. They're going to show up at community hospitals and clinics.
So we need to make sure that the providers there are trained to recognize these signs and know how to intervene, because these families can get help. There are quality approaches that work. But we need a medical community that's trained and knowledgeable and working on advancement. So we've gotten commitments from medical schools, from nursing schools, to step up and increase that pool of knowledgeable individuals. But yes, we hear about these issues all the time.
And that's why the president has asked the entire government to step up, on his part. I mean, there are things that the private sector needs to do, there are things that the government needs to do. We all have a role to play. But he's made, you know, investments in the VA to improve care and the quality of care like no other.
Even in these tough economic times, Barack has left the VA budget as is so that they're prepared to deal with this influx of men and women who are coming home and dealing with a whole array of issues, not just around mental health but just caregiving and the stresses of reconnecting with families who have been away from each other for a very long time.
MARTIN: If you're just...
OBAMA: So these challenges are there.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and we're talking about her work with military families. It's one of her signature initiatives and she's been working on this for about a year, along with Dr. Jill Biden, who's the wife, of course, of Vice President Joseph Biden. It's one of their signature initiatives and they call it Joining Forces.
Can I just ask you one more question about the employment issue?
MARTIN: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there's still about 12 percent unemployment for post-9/11 vets, and I just wanted to ask, you know, why is that? Why do you think that is? Do you think that employers feel that - are worried that there is, perhaps, some hidden injury that they can't see? Do you think it has something to do with the age of the folks who are returning? Is it - why is that? Why should there be any veteran unemployed who wants a job?
OBAMA: You know, I think employers need help in understanding how to translate a military career. Right? I mean, let's take the average spouse. You know, you show up in an employer's, you know, office and it's shown that you've changed jobs every two years. Well, to many employers, that could be viewed as a red flag, but the truth is that you've made those moves because you're serving your country and, each time you've found a career and you've been able to provide for your family and you've continued to volunteer and on and on and on. So there are many different ways that a military person's career can be translated.
And, a lot of times, the civilian private sector doesn't know how to make that connection. That's why it's been so important that the Chamber of Commerce, for example, has hosted hiring fairs that are specifically targeted to military communities. They've gone onto bases. They're working closely with key people on bases so that they're working together to figure out how to make those connections.
We did an event in Shreveport, Louisiana because there's a railroad company there that has, like - 10, 15 percent of its employee base are veterans and they found that the connection of working in a highly skilled, high - you know, high powered, working with engines, working in a disciplined setting, that that's a good connection with veterans.
But the COO was a veteran himself, so he understands what veterans can bring to the table and he's - you know, what we're saying is we want to lift you up so that you can help other employees understand how to best place and position people.
OBAMA: So - but - so I think knowledge is part of it - is a big reason why there's been this gap.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break and, in a moment, we will continue our conversation with the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. And we'll talk about the national discussion sparked by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and how to keep our minds and thoughts open during the painful aftermath.
OBAMA: We all need, as a country, to continue to talk about these issues, to understand our communities and the challenges that we face, which are different and unique, depending upon where you live.
MARTIN: The First Lady also weighs in on the latest battle in the so-called Mommy Wars and tells us how she stays centered amid the whirlwind of work and politics in the White House. Please stay with us. That's all coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear from our panel of moms about the latest chapter in the so-called Mommy Wars. It began again last week after a democratic strategist declared that Ann Romney was out of touch with the concerns of most American women because she doesn't work outside the home.
But first, we continue our conversation with First Lady Michelle Obama. She joined us earlier from the East Wing of the White House.
Before the break, the first lady was telling us about an issue that's been at the heart of her work in the White House. Joining forces is the campaign led by the first lady and the wife of the vice president, Dr. Jill Biden, to help military families. Later, I asked Mrs. Obama about some of the other stories that have been on the minds of families across the country.
Just a couple of other issues in the news we wanted to ask you about, and we really do appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. We've been spending a lot of time, as you might imagine, covering the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin and your, you know, husband made the point that, if he - if you and he had a son, he would probably look like Trayvon Martin. And you can imagine that this has been a particularly painful episode for a lot of people in this country.
We've been hearing that there are parents of all backgrounds who find this story troubling, but then, now, we also hear that there are people who find this whole issue divisive, and I wanted to ask if you feel that there's something we could learn from this that might be healing to the country. Is there a way to talk about this that might be constructive or helpful for the country?
OBAMA: Well, you know, first, all I can say is that, you know, my heart goes out to the parents because we all as parents understand the tragedy of that kind of loss, and I think that's really the thing that most people connect to. And it's important for us not to lose sight of the fact that this is a family that's grieving and there's been a tremendous loss and we all have to rally around that piece of it.
Talking is good. Conversations have to be forever. You know, they can't come in spits and starts when there's an incident. I think we all need as a country to continue to talk about these issues, to understand our communities and the challenges that we face, which are different and unique, depending upon where you live.
It's all about, you know, continuing to get to know ourselves in a very diverse and complicated country that is America. It is a wonderful place to live, but because it is so diverse, our challenges are complex. So there isn't, you know, a one-shot solution to this. It is complicated. It takes time. It takes openness. It takes compassion. It takes patience. And it takes a lot of work. So we should all be ready to roll up our sleeves and keep doing that work.
MARTIN: The other issue, of course, that's in the news is this whole issue around democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, commenting that Ann Romney doesn't really get it, that she wasn't really fit to advise her husband about the economic concerns of most American women because, quote, unquote, "she never worked a day in her life."
Now, you, your husband, a lot of other people have said that these remarks were inappropriate. But I just have to ask, though, didn't she have a point? If more than 70 percent of married American mothers work outside the home - that doesn't even count all the single mothers - and, for most of these women, it's not a choice. It's an economic necessity.
Wasn't it a fair point, even if you don't agree with it, to say that perhaps Ann Romney is not best positioned to advise her husband on economic issues affecting American women?
OBAMA: You know, let me tell you, the one thing I believe is that families are off limits, and I think my husband said it and he was clear on that. And I totally agree with him. I also - my comment that I tweeted, which was we need to respect all women in the whatever positions and roles they play in this society. That's where we need to be and I think that's all I have to say on the issue. I think we've said all that we have to say on that.
MARTIN: Well, that leads me to my final question, which is your job is kind of stressful.
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MARTIN: I think people would agree. I think most reasonable people would agree. It's not that easy to be in the spotlight 24/7 and I know that when you and your husband took office, you talked about your desire to keep things as normal as possible, particularly for your children. It's been a long time since there were young children in the White House.
And I just wanted to ask, how do you feel that that's going? And what are you doing to kind of keep things as normal as possible for all of you?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I have to disagree. I don't have the stressful job. He does. You know, I have the privilege of working on the issues that I choose and the issues that I feel most passionate about. It's been a privilege, and there are definitely, you know, pressures that come with being in the spotlight, but they are far - are overshadowed by the amount of great things I've been able to do and the impact I've been able to have, and to be able to do it in the warmth of the White House, and to do it around people who do care about my kids in a country that has been respectful of my children and their privacy. It has been less stressful than I would have imagined for me.
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OBAMA: The president's job is a lot harder and that's why I'm working hard to get him re-elected because he's handled himself with a level of grace and poise that not many people could given the challenges that he's faced.
But our girls are good and, you know - and I will keep working, always putting them first, as I think any family would - any mother would their children. I don't think I'm different in that respect. I think, in the end, I want to make sure that my kids come out of this thing on the other end in one piece. But I also know that that's how the rest of the country feels, as well. So, for that, I am grateful.
MARTIN: Michelle Obama is the First Lady of the United States and she was kind enough to join us from the White House. Mrs. Obama, thank you so much for speaking with us.
OBAMA: All right. Take care. Thanks so much for focusing on Joining Forces and just remind your listeners that if they want to help, we want to send them to JoiningForces.gov. That's a great place to start if people want to get involved, and we want everyone to step up.
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