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Actor Tom Hanks introduces former First Lady Michelle Obama on stage at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Obama received an award for her work as first lady to support caregivers of veterans and service members.

Actor Tom Hanks introduces former First Lady Michelle Obama on stage at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Obama received an award for her work as first lady to support caregivers of veterans and service members. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Actor Tom Hanks introduces former First Lady Michelle Obama on stage at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Obama received an award for her work as first lady to support caregivers of veterans and service members.

Actor Tom Hanks introduces former First Lady Michelle Obama on stage at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Obama received an award for her work as first lady to support caregivers of veterans and service members. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Actor Tom Hanks speaks to a crowd of hundreds at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Hanks, who is chairman of the foundation's Hidden Heroes campaign, presented an award to former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Actor Tom Hanks speaks to a crowd of hundreds at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Hanks, who is chairman of the foundation's Hidden Heroes campaign, presented an award to former First Lady Michelle Obama. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., welcomes actor Tom Hanks on stage during the Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C. Hanks is chairman of Hidden Heroes, a campaign of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that brings resources to caregivers of veterans and service members.

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., welcomes actor Tom Hanks on stage during the Heroes and History Makers gala Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C. Hanks is chairman of Hidden Heroes, a campaign of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that brings resources to caregivers of veterans and service members. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Former First Lady Michelle Obama accepts the Tom Hanks Caregiver Champion Award on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation gives the award for outstanding support of military caregivers.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama accepts the Tom Hanks Caregiver Champion Award on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation gives the award for outstanding support of military caregivers. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Former First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged military families and elected officials this week to “keep the pressure on” the country’s leaders to expand the support and understanding of those who care for injured and ill veterans and service members.

Speaking to a room of military and veteran families Wednesday, Obama said getting to know that community during her time as first lady “changed me forever.”

“You’ve changed the way I see service. You’ve changed the way I see war,” Obama said. “You’ve changed the way I see this entire country, and whether we simply talk about the values we like to pride ourselves on – values like duty, honor and patriotism – or if we actually live them out.”

Obama received an award Wednesday from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which initiated its “Hidden Heroes” campaign in 2012 to bring resources to military caregivers. Obama became involved with the initiative from its start, said actor Tom Hanks. He is chairman of the Hidden Heroes campaign and the namesake and first recipient its annual award, the Tom Hanks Caregiver Champion Award.

Hanks introduced Obama at The Anthem in Washington, where hundreds of military families, elected officials and donors had gathered. He described how the former first lady invited military caregivers into the White House shortly after Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., announced her campaign.

“Just 10 days after Senator Dole announced her call to action, she and Mrs. Obama shared a stage,” Hanks said. “For the first time, these hidden heroes were recognized and validated by no less than the first lady of the United States of America.”

Obama wrapped work for military caregivers into Joining Forces, an initiative started in 2011 by her and Jill Biden to support service members, veterans and their families with education, employment and health resources.

“We wanted to recognize someone who was there for our caregivers in the early days – a national leader who understood and took hold of the issue before most,” Hanks said. “When we at the foundation thought who that might be, the choice was obvious and immediate.”

After receiving the award, Obama said she had little access to the military community before former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. During the campaign, she met a group of military spouses and decided – if her husband was elected – she would do something to help that population.

During her time in the White House, Obama opened it up to military families, she said.

“You’re all the ones who kept us going,” Obama said. “You all are why we kept our foot on the gas with Joining Forces.”

Obama and Dole spoke Wednesday about the importance of unity in the wake of growing divisiveness in the country.

“Cynicism has gripped our country; there’s such divisiveness,” Dole said in her opening remarks. “Our nation is stalemated, and nothing gets done. Everyone just stays at home and tweets about problems. Nobody is trying to solve them.

“Well, to those who have resigned themselves to such pessimism, I invite them to look around the room tonight. We are not divided; we’re united.”

Likewise, Obama said, “We all have to remember that we are working toward the same goals for the same country. It’s times like this that remind me of that.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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