SARAH SMILEY

Conference call with Biden’s wife promises change

Posted April 24, 2011, at 4:56 p.m.

Two weeks ago, I was walking the aisles of Walmart when my agent called. Now, there are two unusual things you should know about my agent. First, her last name is Smiley, and we are not related (what are the chances of that?). Second, she seems to always call when I’m at Walmart (chances: very likely).

“Um, I’m at Walmart … again,” I whispered into my phone.

“OK, but the office of the vice president is looking for you,” she said.

“Vice president of what?”

“The United States.”

I tried to hide my surprise. “Oh, well, of course they are,” I said, a bag of frozen french fries in my hand. My mind reeled as I tried to recall any possibly inflammatory or offensive columns I may have recently written. The one lambasting the government for almost not paying military personnel (last week’s column) was already submitted but not yet published. I’d just keep that piece of information to myself.

The whole interaction reminded me of the time in 2008 when Michelle Obama’s staff was looking for me. I got that phone call while I was waiting in a public restroom. (By the way, these are the perils of constant communication by cell phone.)

As it turned out, Vice President Joe Biden’s office wanted me to participate in a conference call with his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to discuss a new program called “Joining Forces” launched by the vice president, Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden.

According to a press release, Joining Forces is “a national initiative to support and honor America’s service members and their families. The initiative aims to educate, challenge and spark action from all sectors of our society — citizens, communities, businesses, nonprofits, faith-based institutions, philanthropic organizations, and government — to ensure military families have the support they have earned.”

My first reaction, given that I was already feeling spurned by the looming government shutdown and frozen military pay: Why is “government” listed last in the list? In an earlier statement, Vice President Biden had said, “[W]e have lots of obligations as a nation — but only one truly sacred moral obligation: to prepare and protect those we send into harm’s way, and to give them every bit of care they, and their families, need when they return.”

I felt somewhat betrayed thinking about the possibility of not receiving a full paycheck in what was just one week’s time. Supportive words are nice; money to pay our mortgage is even better.

This is a common reaction. There is a tendency for military families to be skeptical of initiatives like “Joining Forces.” After all, calls for support don’t necessarily translate into action and change. Also, we are leery of being used as pawns in political debates and campaigns.

But I vowed to be open-minded, especially because Dr. Biden herself is a military mother, with grandchildren and a daughter-in-law who have often been in my shoes: in the role of dependent child and spouse. Also, I was excited to see that corporations such as Sears, Walmart (Hey, I’ve been there!), Sam’s Club, Siemens, Goodwill, Cisco, McGraw-Hill, Discovery Education and more have committed to offering their support.

In other words: There was hope that this initiative might have staying power.

(Side note: It is a sad state of affairs when military families have lost faith in their government to be the real powerhouse of support.)

During the conference call, it was important to me to find out if this initiative is just words or actually has some muscle. And to be fair (and real), Joining Forces contains much of the usual soothing, flowery speech that military families have come to view with suspect. Yet, there are some measurable changes being made. To list just a few:

  1. Sears is offering a “PCS Promise” to its military employees, assuring ease of job transfer with the next permanent change of duty station.
  2. Siemens is saving 10% of more than 3,000 jobs for military veterans.
  3. Goodwill plans to open 1,300 new jobs for military families and veterans.
  4. Discovery Education is providing Department of Defense schools access to materials to integrate digital education and content into classrooms.
  5. Best Buy’s Geek Squad will offer support to families who wish to communicate by technology with loved ones deployed overseas.
  6. WebMD is building two online resource centers (for consumers and providers) to help those in the health care industries understand military-family needs.
  7. The American Heart Association will help military wives and female veterans learn CPR.
  8. The YMCA, National Military Family Association and the Sierra Club will offer free camps in more than 35 states to 7,000 military kids and families.

This is a fantastic start to creating awareness. And awareness is the first step to action. It’s our job as military families to keep these companies and our government accountable for the promises they have made to us. Which won’t always be easy: Many of us are busy waiting for paychecks and shopping at Walmart.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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