President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Fort Stewart Friday to greet soldiers and their families and sign an executive order aimed at cracking down on educational institutions that use deceptive practices to recruit soldiers and veterans. The First Lady also spoke to the soldiers about Joining Forces, her initiative to encourage businesses to employ veterans.
Hours before the first couple arrived, thousands of soldiers, veterans and their families thronged Fort Stewart's Marne Garden. When the Obamas appeared at about 12:30 p.m., the civilians in the crowd erupted into cheers while the soldiers snapped to attention and saluted.
Here are excerpts of the Obamas' remarks:
"We are beyond thrilled -- beyond thrilled -- to be with all of you today," Michelle Obama said. "... I want to thank all of you -- our men and women in uniform, our veterans and your extraordinary families. ... One of my greatest privileges as First Lady has been meeting folks like you on bases and communities all across this country. And I always say this, but I can never say it enough: I am in awe of you. I'm in awe of how many of you signed up to defend our country in a time of war, serving heroically through deployment after deployment. I'm in awe of your families -- the spouses who run their households all alone, the kids who step up at home and succeed at school and stay strong through all the challenges they face. With their service, they make your service possible.
"...Like so many Americans, the more I've learned about the sacrifices you all make, the more I wanted to find a way to express my gratitude, and that’s -- not just with words, but with action," she said. "And that’s why last year Jill Biden and I started Joining Forces. It's a nationwide campaign to recognize, honor and support our veterans, our troops and our military families. And I have to tell you, we had barely even finished announcing this campaign when we were inundated with offers to help. I mean, so many people wanted to step up and show their appreciation that we hardly knew where to begin. In our first year alone, more than 1,600 businesses hired more than 60,000 veterans, and they pledged to hire at least 170,000 more in the coming years.
"...So if I can leave you with just one message today, I want you all to know that America does have your backs," she said. "And we are just getting started. We are going to keep at this. We're going to keep on working every day to serve all of you as well as you have served this country."
"It’s a privilege to hang out with some of America’s finest -- the ‘Dog-Face Soldiers’ of the Third Infantry Division," President Obama said. "...I want to thank all of you. I want to thank you for your service. I want to thank you for your sacrifice. I want to thank you for your unshakeable commitment to our country. You have worn the uniform with honor. You’ve performed heroically in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. You have done everything that has been asked of you, and more. And you have earned a special place in our nation’s history. Future generations will speak of your achievements.
"...Your generation -- the 9/11 Generation -- has written one of the greatest chapters of military service that America has ever seen," Obama said. "But I know that for many of you, a new chapter is unfolding. The war in Iraq is over. The transition in Afghanistan is underway. Many of our troops are coming home, back to civilian life. And as you return, I know that you’re looking for new jobs and new opportunities and new ways to serve this great country of ours.
"...So as President, I’ve made sure to champion the Post-9/11 GI Bill. And with that bill -- and the Tuition Assistance program -- last year we supported more than 550,000 veterans and 325,000 service members who are pursuing a higher education. Because a higher education is the clearest path to the middle class. That’s progress. But we’ve got more to do. We can’t be satisfied with what we’ve already done, we’ve got more to do. We’ve got to make sure you’ve got every tool you need to make an informed decision when it comes to picking a school. And that’s why Michelle and I are here today."
Obama said many educational institutions took advantage of soldiers, veterans and their families, using aggressive or deceptive recruiting tactics and cajoling military students into taking out loans that would lead to crushing debt.
"I’ve heard the stories," he said. "Some of you guys can relate; you may have experienced it yourselves. You go online to try and find the best school for military members, or your spouses, or other family members. You end up on a website that looks official. They ask you for your email, they ask you for your phone number. They promise to link you up with a program that fits your goals. Almost immediately after you’ve typed in all that information, your phone starts ringing. Your inbox starts filling up. You’ve never been more popular in your life. All of these schools want you to enroll with them.
"And it sounds good. Every school and every business should be out there competing for your skills and your talent and your leadership -- everything that you’ve shown in uniform. But as some of your comrades have discovered, sometimes you’re dealing with folks who aren’t interested in helping you. They’re not interested in helping you find the best program. They are interested in getting the money. They don’t care about you; they care about the cash."
Obama said some soldiers complained of educational institutions harassing them with repeated phone calls, or even sending representatives on post to aggressively recruit.
"One of the worst examples of this is a college recruiter who had the nerve to visit a barracks at Camp Lejeune and enroll Marines with brain injuries -- just for the money," he said. "These Marines had injuries so severe some of them couldn’t recall what courses the recruiter had signed them up for. That’s appalling. That’s disgraceful. It should never happen in America. ... And today, here at Fort Stewart, we’re going to put an end to it. We’re putting an end to it.
"The executive order I’m about to sign will make life a whole lot more secure for you and your families and our veterans -- and a whole lot tougher for those who try to prey on you." Here’s what we’re going to do.
Obama said the order would require schools to provide prospective students with clear information about financial aid and provide more academic support and counseling -- including helping soldiers come up with a plan to finish their degrees if their studies are interrupted by deployment.
Obama said the order would also throw cold water on overzealous school recruiters.
"We’re going to bring an end to the aggressive -- and sometimes dishonest -- recruiting that takes place," he said. "We’re going to up our oversight of improper recruitment practices. We’re going to strengthen the rules about who can come on post and talk to service members. And we’re going to make it a lot easier for all of you to file complaints and for us to take action when somebody is not acting right.
"This is about making sure you succeed," he said. Because when you succeed, our country succeeds. It’s that simple."
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