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"You have changed the way I see service, you’ve changed the way I see war, you’ve changed the way I see this entire country," said the former first lady

By Amy Eskind
October 24, 2019 03:15 PM
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Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama
Credit: Rita Wilson/Instagram

Former First Lady Michelle Obama became teary as she accepted the Tom Hanks Caregiver Champion award for service to military caregivers on Thursday night at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Hidden Heroes gala.

Opening up during a speech at the Washington, D.C., event, the former first lady said she first became aware of the difficulties for spouses, parents, and children of wounded and ill vets while on the campaign trail when her husband was first running for president.

“You all changed me forever,” she said. “You have changed the way I see service, you’ve changed the way I see war, you’ve changed the way I see this entire country. Whether we simply talk about the values we like to pride ourselves on, values like duty and honor and patriotism, or if we actually live them out.”

“I was like most Americans, sadly, I had absolutely no idea what the life of a military family member was like,” Obama said. “I had no meaningful connection to the military community at all, even though my father had served, that was before I was born. But that all changed back when my husband was first campaigning for president and I had the great fortune to be able to sit down with groups of military spouses. And, yeah, you better believe their stories blew me away.”

She continued, “Not just the emotions of having your loved one in harm’s way but the difficulties of building a career as you’re being sent from base to base, the juggling of managing a household all alone, the underlying sense that no one outside the military community could really understand what you’re going through. And I pledged then and there that if my husband was elected, I’d do what I could to support these spouses.”

While in the White House, Obama, 55, invited military families to dinners and cookouts, and to bring their children to see characters like Big Bird. She and former Vice President Joe Biden created Joining Forces, an initiative that rallied Americans around active service members, veterans, and their families. After hearing about caregivers from Sen. Elizabeth Dole, she included military caregivers in her work too.

As first lady, Obama made it a point to visit wounded soldiers: “A lot of times all I could do was simply be there to sit in silence with the wife of a young soldier or the father of an airman. We’d smile at each other as we’d watch wounded warriors children playing on the floor, doing their homework by their parents’ bedside. Maybe we’d hold hands and pray. A lot of times we’d just cry.”

“I know that anything I’ve done on this issue pales in comparison to literally every single service member, every caregiver, every veteran, every military spouse and child I’ve ever met because I’m not really doing much compared to them. I’m giving speeches, but I’m not managing a household all alone while my loved one is serving overseas,” she said.

She said she was honored to be chosen for an award named for Hanks, 63, but the actor joked that having his name on it made him uncomfortable.

“This is a subject that does not go away with a victory party or a ‘thank you for your service,’ or you know, some applause during a baseball game. These folks deal with this every single day, and there’s millions of them that came about because of their voluntary service to the United States of America,” Hanks said.

Hanks also had vast praise for Dole, whom he calls the “velvet hurricane.”

Dole noticed the plight of military caregivers while at the hospital five years ago taking care of her own husband, Sen. Bob Dole, now 96, an Army veteran who has permanent injuries to his arms from his service in World War II. She thought the nation needed to help not just the veterans, but the tireless caregivers of veterans too.

“Thank goodness, so many soldiers who would have died in earlier wars are being saved today,” Dole, 83, said. “They’re surviving because battlefield medicine is so improved, but of that group, many are coming home with multiple wounds, illnesses and injuries that will require a caregiver for decades.”

Today, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has energized 142 Hidden Heroes cities, where military caregivers can easily connect with services they need, and Dole said she’d like to see more.