Thank you, Tommy, for your introduction and for the invitation to join you today. I’m especially pleased to join you this month, which the President has designated as National Military Family Month.
I want to recognize and thank three leaders in particular who have made this summit possible:
• Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Gail McGinn;
• Agriculture Under Secretary Dr. Rajiv Shah; and
• University of Maryland President Dr. Dan Mote.
Thank you all for your leadership.
Services representatives, spouses, and members of military family associations, thank you for participating in this summit. You are a vital part of our nation’s commitment to military families. On behalf of Secretary Gates, on behalf of the entire Department of Defense, I want to thank you for your dedication.
Being with you today holds special meaning for me. Twenty years ago I had the privilege of serving on the staff of Senator Ted Kennedy. At the time, military childcare was scarce. Daycare workers were often untrained, the facilities they used antiquated, and there were not enough spaces to meet demand.
That’s when I came across a passionate advocate for military families named Gail McGinn. Working with Gail and the National Military Family Association, we held hearings. We highlighted the need for high quality, cost-shared childcare for military families. And we passed the Military Child Care Act, which marks its twentieth anniversary this month.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve made a great deal of progress. Today, the Department of Defense now treats the three million family members of our service men and women for what they are—a full part of our fighting force. Military childcare is now part of military readiness.
But as we all know, the longest sustained wartime mobilization in our country’s history has put enormous strains on our forces and their families. Nearly a quarter million children have a parent at war. 91,000 of our men and women in uniform are in military marriages. Almost as many are raising children as single parents. And the repeated deployment of the Guard and the Reserve personnel has strained families, employers, and communities. No corner of America has been untouched.
The entire country has been reminded of the strength of our military families and community this past week with the tragedy at Fort Hood. Our thoughts and prayers are with the fallen, their families, and the entire Army family—at Fort Hood and across the country.
At the same time, we have been inspired. We’ve seen soldiers do as they always do—taking care of each other and each other’s families. And we’ve been reminded of our obligation to them—to do everything we can to help them to recover, and to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. To keep our military families strong.
That’s why you’re here. Taking care of our military families includes the Guard and Reserve families who live far from military communities and the programs that serve them. And thanks to many of you in this room, we’ve made progress.
The Joint Family Support Assistance program and the Yellow Ribbon program bring support to these families, wherever they live. Greater access to information online, through the Military OneSource web portal, places existing resources closer at hand. And thanks to the tremendous efforts of organizations represented in this room, and to the American people, our troops and their families receive support in their own communities.
But you’re here because you know we need to do more, especially for the more than 400,000 Reserve and Guard spouses. Many of them wake up without their husbands or wives beside them, far from a community of other families who share in the burden of protecting our nation.
I know you’ve spent the past two days exploring better ways to reach these families. I am here today to tell you that serving our geographically dispersed families, and empowering them to overcome the challenges they face, is a priority as we take care of the force.
So on behalf of Secretary Gates, on behalf of the Department of Defense, I want to fully endorse your efforts. America’s 111 land grand universities, together with the Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension System, can be a valuable bridge in reaching under-served members of our military community.
Land grant universities already provide educational counseling to children of deployed soldiers, teach our troops personal and family finances, and provide distance learning opportunities to their spouses. The success of these programs suggests there is much more we can do together.
As you go forward, you will have the full support of the Department of Defense.
I’m also here today to say that your work is a critical part of taking care of the all-volunteer force. Our all-volunteer force is America’s greatest strategic asset. And the Administration’s commitment is reflected in our first defense budget:
• To ease the burden on our forces and their families, we’ve increased the size of the Army and Marines Corps two years ahead of schedule and have approved another temporary increase in the Army. We’ve also halted reductions in the Navy and Air Force.
• We’re increasing pay, with substantial across-the-broad pay raises for our troops. This is in addition to significant increases in allowances for housing and subsistence.
• To care for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and especially for our wounded warriors, we’re increasing funding for medical research and making major investments in treating post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
• To care for our military families, we’re increasing funding for childcare, spousal support and career development, lodging, and education. And to help today’s forces and their families, we’re fully funding the post-9/11 GI Bill, including making benefits transferable to service members’ spouses and children.
All told, the President’s defense budget commits $9 billion for family support. And the programs that deliver this support are now part of the regular budget. They are here to stay.
Over the weekend, I had the chance to visit some of our wounded warriors at Landstuhl hospital in Germany. Seeing the wounded warriors at Landstuhl is particularly poignant. For they have just arrived from Iraq and Afghanistan, often only hours after the fight. As you all know, you can’t make these visits without being deeply humbled by the troops and by their families, who sacrifice so much. Those visits are a reminder of our sacred responsibility—our duty, as President Lincoln said, to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”
It was President Lincoln who signed the Act establishing the land grant system more than a century ago. So our collaboration with the Department of Agriculture to reach geographically dispersed Guard and Reserve families through land grant universities would strike a fitting historical note.
It would enroll a system Lincoln founded in the effort to care for our troops and their families—those who have “borne the battle.”
Thank you for your commitment to that cause, and for your participation here today.
Working together, we have a remarkable opportunity to keep faith with our force and our military families.
Thank you very much. And I know you had a productive two days.