Michelle Obama’s Veterans’ Initiative: Meat or Just Sizzle?

Michelle Obama at a Joining Forces event

First Lady Michelle Obama bounded energetically onto a stage set up last April at a Sears distribution facility in Columbus, Ohio. Shiny black and red lawn tractors stood stacked in storage crates up to the warehouse ceiling behind her, a backdrop intimating hearty manufacturing jobs and bucolic suburban lawns.

Two days earlier, the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden had announced their new veterans’ initiative in the White House East Room at an event featuring the president and vice president. Now, the first lady and Dr. Biden were on a two-day road trip to North Carolina, Colorado, Texas, and Ohio. In Columbus, Sears seemed to embody the spirit of the first lady’s plan. In the midst of a veterans’ unemployment crisis, 30,000 veterans work for Sears. Around 150 of those workers from the Columbus area sat in rows of metal folding chairs as the first lady stood at the dais.

The first lady’s message was about as controversial as yellow-ribbon bumper sticker. She had come, she said, to thank the workers “who have served our country as veterans or as military spouses.”

“We’ve launched this wonderful new campaign that we are calling Joining Forces,” Obama said about her new veterans’ program. Then she described it with the same heartwarming phrase repeated by everybody affiliated with Joining Forces: “This is a nationwide effort to bring Americans together to recognize, to honor, and to serve our military families.”

Joining Forces is something meatier than Laura Bush advocating for literacy, but less tangible and politically risky than Hillary Clinton’s health care overhaul attempt. Michelle Obama has certainly chosen a worthy cause: Ten years of war have resulted in a suicide epidemic, high unemployment, and increased divorce and homelessness among veterans.

Any attention is appreciated. Less than one percent of the American population now serves in the military – the lowest percentage ever. So a sliver of America is enduring a tremendous burden while the rest of us wander, oblivious, through the shopping mall.

Aides to Michelle Obama portray Joining Forces as a substantive project, one that will achieve measureable results, and something more than just a first lady’s feel-good pet project. “It is real. It has impact and effect," said Bradley Cooper, Joining Forces’ executive director. He said the first lady is aiming for advances in employment, education, and wellness among veterans and their families. “Joining Forces is energizing and rallying every sector of society so that veterans and military families get the support that they deserve and earned,” he repeated loyally.

But it is hard to measure Joining Forces’ precise contributions. “What are the metrics for measuring the success of this initiative among veterans?” asked Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “The suicide rate? Unemployment? The divorce rate?”

The first lady and Dr. Biden also hit the road with Joining Forces’ mawkish message in April, around the same time the White House switched into serious campaign mode. Notably, half of the first lady’s Joining Forces trips have been to swing states, including Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Colorado. (Michelle Obama’ favorability hovers at 70 percent, while her husband’s has sunk to 54 percent, according to a recent poll by the national poll by the Associated Press.)

All this has caused some veterans’ advocates to be less charitable when they talk about Joining Forces. “There is no there, there,” one advocate said, requesting anonymity so as not to pick a fight with the White House. “It is a joke. It is a pathetic joke.”

The first lady’s office prepared for TIME a long laundry list of “Joining Forces Goals and Deliverables.” Most of the bullet points describe ongoing initiatives by other government agencies or private organizations.

The document touts, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s hiring fairs for vets, called Hiring Heroes. The chambers has already conducted 21 veteran hiring fairs in 17 states that have introduced 20,000 veterans to prospective employers, and the chamber is planning at least another 79 Hiring Heroes job fairs this year.

The President of Veterans Employment Programs at the chamber, Kevin Schmiegel, says when the first lady gives a speech and mentions Hiring Heroes, the attention drawn to the program is a valuable contribution. But Schmiegel admits that Hiring Heroes is a chamber operation at heart. “The people that are really making this happen is the local chambers,” Schmiegel said.

“Some of those companies were doing some of that anyways,” he said when asked if Michelle Obama’s support means more veterans get hired. “You have to ask yourself how many of those companies are doing more.” (It was also good PR when Prince William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, attended one fair on July 10 in Los Angeles, Schmiegel said.)

The first lady’s office also touted the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, a program to try to alert qualified military spouses of employment opportunities they sometimes miss because of frequent relocations. “In June, Dr. Biden rolled out this initiative and it has resulted in 54,000 +jobs being available to military spouses to date,” the first lady’s office noted in the document sent to TIME.

That is a Defense Department program, also with the chamber. It’s true that Dr. Biden “rolled out” the initiative when she appeared at the launch in June and told an audience of 70 employers that, “If you’re looking for hard-working, highly skilled and educated, dedicated employees, our military spouses are precisely the employees you need.”

The first lady’s staff said Joining Forces has so far concentrated on employment. One official admitted that the education and wellness platforms were “tough ones,” where Joining Forces’ work was still more preliminary.

If Joining Forces seems a bit fluffy, that may be, in part, because there is no real inside-government power player behind it. In addition to Cooper, the initiative is mostly run by Matt Flavin, the White House director of veterans and wounded warrior policy. This is a new position, invented by the Obama White House. Flavin is dedicated and energetic, observers said, but he doesn’t have much in the way of staff or authority.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, has drafted detailed reports grading veteran programs throughout the federal government. “As much as I like these guys, they need some horsepower and gravitas from the enlisted veterans who know how to get stuff done,” Sullivan said.

What veterans want most from government is for the Department of Defense and the VA to provide quick access to quality healthcare, including mental healthcare, and the financial benefits they have earned. Sullivan thinks the White House could better serve veterans by setting up an office staffed by former Pentagon and VA officials that would monitor and report to veterans, Congress and the federal agencies themselves on government progress delivering on these promises. This, however, would put the White House in the position of highlighting not just the many achievements – and there are some significant ones during the Obama administration – but also the enduring deficiencies on veterans’ issues during the Obama administration.

Joining Forces does bring the value of the first lady’s own bully pulpit to a vital issue lurking in the shadows. “Joining forces does bring attention to the situations faced by American veterans from the highest level possible,” said the American Legion’s Executive Director Peter Gaytan. The program also maintains a web site where anyone can type in a “message of support” that the USO will deliver to a military family, or search for local soup kitchens to do volunteer work.

Joining Forces is also conducting substantive research into veterans’ issues, but that work has been outsourced to a Washington national security think tank, the Center for New American Security, with close ties to the Obama administration. CNAS raised almost $1.8 million in contributions from Health Net, Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Prudential Financial, and TriWest Healthcare Alliance to perform research on suicide statistics among veterans after they leave the military, among other things.

Some veterans admit they chafe at Joining Forces because they have such little patience for what could be interpreted as window dressing at a time when the current trends among veterans are so frightening. There was a record 32 Army suicides in July, the most since the Army started releasing monthly figures in 2009. Unemployment among post 9-11 veterans peaked at over 13 percent this summer. Injured veterans recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan who are still in the military now languish waiting for their discharge papers for an average of 410 days in so-called “wounded warrior” units. That is an increase from 291 days since early 2010, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. And the number of veterans from all wars waiting for the VA to decide if they get benefits has increased from 460,000 in 2004 to over 1 million today. Given the stakes, couldn’t Joining Forces have been so much more?

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