April 13th, 2011
06:46 AM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Starting Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, plan to visit four states in two days to raise public awareness of the needs of families of military service members.
The tour marks the launch of "Joining Forces," a new initiative to encourage institutions, businesses and individuals to do more to help military families. Obama and Biden are scheduled to make stops in North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, and Ohio.
The first lady and Biden will be joined at various stops by such celebrities as Jessica Simpson, Nick Jonas, Martha Stewart and the cast of Sesame Street.
"This campaign is about all of us," said Obama at a Tuesday White House ceremony, "all of us joining together, as Americans, to give back to the extraordinary military families who serve and sacrifice so much, every day, so that we can live in freedom in security."
The first lady and Biden were joined by their husbands at the ceremony.
On Wednesday, Obama, Biden and Stewart are scheduled to attend a baby-shower at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for 40 pregnant wives of military servicemen. Among them is Chelsea Herring, whose husband has been deployed to Afghanistan until mid-summer. The couple is expecting their first child in May.
"I have about 5 more weeks in my pregnancy and my husband won't be here for the birth," Herring said. "He's missed the milestones. He's never felt the baby move and I think of all the appointments he's missed. It's hard to go to the birthing classes and see all the other women there with their husbands."
Herring is looking forward to meeting other women who are going through the same experience. She also appreciates the first lady's visit as way to honor and recognize the role of military spouses.
"A lot of people overlook (military spouses)," Herring said. "I don't look at myself as a martyr, but you get a completely different view of it when you live it day to day."
The Camp Lejeune event is sponsored by a non-profit group called Operation Shower.
LeAnn Morrissey founded Operation Shower four years ago to help out her uncle who was deployed while his wife was pregnant with their third child. What began as sending care packages of baby shower supplies to wives of soldiers in her uncle's unit, turned into a nationwide operation run from the basement of her St. Louis home.
"It started just to do something for military families but also specifically for moms and moms-to-be. I realized soon after having a child how difficult it is to be a mom," Morrissey told CNN. "As we started getting the responses, we saw that we were making a difference and we were doing something worthwhile, I was hooked."
The Bidens know what it's like to wait for a family member to come home from military service abroad. Their son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq two and a half years ago with the Delaware National Guard. Jill Biden recounted that experience, as well as the support her family received during that time, at the Tuesday ceremony.
"Small community groups can make a huge difference," Biden said. "Imagine for a moment not just what these small gestures mean to a family, but what they mean to a soldier thousands of miles away who knows that someone is looking out for the ones he loves back home."
Herring says that while she feels the military does a good job of responding to her needs, some times others may overlook ways of helping military spouses.
"The biggest thing is the way people want to support them and most people think they have to be [physically] there to support them but there is so much more that they could do."
Joyce Raezer, Executive Director of the National Military Family Association, says there has been a lot of support for military families since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. However, the biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going, Raezer said.
"The communities' efforts have been strong but they are tired. People need others to understand what they've been going through and to offer support," Raezer said. "But even after 10 years, it's not too late to ask what we can do to help."
"We want to broaden the message of peoples' ideas of what they can do," said Raezer.
Raezer's group focuses on a variety of issues such as employment and hiring practices, education and other benefits for military children.
Obama said the intent of the Joining Forces initiative is to enlist support from a broad spectrum of entities, including professional sports and entertainment, businesses and educational institutions.
"The truth is that as a country, we don't always see their families, our heroes on the home front," Obama said. "Unlike our troops, military families don't wear uniforms."
"But like our troops, these families are proud to serve and they don't complain," Obama said. "So as a result, the rest of us don't always realize how hard it can be or what we can do to help lighten their load."