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Throughout history, First Ladies have stood as prominent champions on behalf of those serving in our nation’s armed forces. Advocating in support of troops in combat, veterans who have returned, and the military families that stand by those who serve, First Ladies have regularly leveraged their unique platforms to shepherd action in aid of the well-being of American service members.
On September 16 in Washington DC, Mrs. Michelle Obama and Mrs. Laura Bush will participate in a moderated conversation with Bob Woodruff of ABC as part American University’s The Legacies of America’s First Ladies Initiative.
The conference series features distinguished guests—first ladies, former presidents, and first families, White House staff, scholars, authors, members of the media—who highlight the significant contributions these women make by using their platform to advocate for issues, promote change, and improve our society.
Both Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush have worked closely with our service members and their families throughout their respective tenures as First Lady.
Through the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative (MSI), Mrs. Bush has worked to catalyze long-term, multi-sector solutions to address the core needs of service members, veterans, and their families. On behalf of President and Mrs. Bush, MSI fosters key partnerships and engages directly in awareness, policies, and programs that enable our warriors and their families to successfully transition from military service to civilian life.
In 2011, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady of the United States, launched Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative that calls on all Americans to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through employment, education and wellness opportunities.
And they are not alone in their advocacy.
Despite differences in politics, popular culture, and personal interests, support for veterans and their families has been a priority of the spouses of America’s Commanders in Chief. Over the last century especially, First Ladies have proved notable champions for the needs of active and veteran service members.
During World War I, Mrs. Edith Wilson contributed to everything from volunteering at the Red Cross canteen to introducing a flock of sheep on the White House South Lawn to cut landscaping costs and contribute to the war effort (their sheared wool generating $50,000 at auction). At the end of the war, accompanying President Woodrow Wilson to France for the Paris Peace Conference, she visited allied troops and toured hospitals and clinics treating the wounded. Beyond her formal role as first lady, Mrs. Wilson remained a visible advocate, often joining her successors in their own efforts on behalf of American troops.
Mrs. Florence Harding made service member support a cornerstone of her work, encouraging the Federal Government to act on veteran’s health and establishing the annual White House veterans’ garden party, among other actions, like volunteering her time to read to and write letters for those at Walter Reed Hospital.
Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt toured military training camps, reporting back to President Roosevelt who was often unable to travel. Like her predecessors, she assumed the role of advocate for the rights and well-being of service members, contributing to war bonds and charities, and tending to the needs of those serving oversees. Breaking barriers, she embarked on a series of overseas trips to visit with troops in the Europe and Pacific arenas.
Mrs. Bess Truman was a regular USO volunteer. Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower sponsored charitable activities and resumed the annual White House garden party initiated decades earlier by Mrs. Harding.
From then to the present day, the well-being of service members and their families has been a focus for First Ladies.
We all can share in the duty to better understand and support those who have volunteered to wear the uniform in defense of our nation. In doing so, we continue to enable a generation of resourceful, determined, and experienced leaders to serve and lead our nation for decades to come.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts serves as the Deputy Director of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Natalie is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries. The portfolio currently includes the First Ladies Initiative, the Afghan Women’s Project, and the Women’s Initiative Fellowship. Natalie leads the work of the First Ladies Initiative, which aims to enable and support First Ladies from around the world in effectively using their platforms to empower women and children in their countries.
Natalie studied Communications and International Studies (Peace and Conflict) at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. She earned an MA in War, Violence and Security studies from the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she held roles in New York City at American International Group (AIG), and in London at ConservativeHome USA, the Legatum Institute, and BBC Worldwide. She is also a co-founder of Each Inc., a non-profit that seeks to provide innovative technology tools to organizations that care for and protect orphans and vulnerable children globally, and has previously served as a project strategy advisor to Stop the Traffik’s Finance Against Trafficking initiative.Full Bio
Colonel Matthew F. Amidon, USMCR, is the Director of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. Colonel Amidon leads the day to day efforts of the Military Service Initiative and the team leading our policy and programmatic work on veteran transition.
Colonel Amidon has served in both active duty and reserve capacities since 1994. As an AV-8B Harrier pilot, he deployed in support of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, at the operational and staff level. In his current reserve capacity he serves as the Deputy Group Commander, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Joint Reserve Base Forth Worth, TX.
Recently, Colonel Amidon was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the Creating Options for Veterans' Expedited Recovery (COVER) Commission. COVER provides advice to the VA, the President, and Congress, and examines the benefits of integrative treatments for the mental health conditions of veterans. The commission will also analyze the benefits of incorporating complementary and integrative health treatments in non-government affiliated facilities.
Colonel Amidon is originally from Stowe, Vermont and is a graduate of The University of Vermont. He earned his MBA at Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business in 2009. In 2012, he attended The Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy where he earned a Master of Science. Colonel Amidon is married with three children.Full Bio
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