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First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden speak at an event hosted by Penn Nursing. Credit: Justin Cohen , Justin Cohen

As National Guardsmen and School of Nursing students stood on risers on the stage of Irvine Auditorium, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, pledged to do their part to give the country’s military families the care and support they need.

Obama and Biden appeared at Penn on April 11 to launch a new initiative in recognition of the one-year anniversary of “Joining Forces,” a health care and treatment program for military personnel.

“Nurses represent America’s largest healthcare force,” Biden said. “More than 500 nursing schools and 150 nursing organizations are joining forces to meet the unique healthcare needs of servicemen, veterans and their families.”

As part of the initiative, Obama explained that 3 million nurses will get the training needed to better support servicemen and women.

“It’s the least we can do for the men and women who have served our country so bravely,” she said to a packed house of nearly 1,200 in Irvine.

In particular, Obama and Biden’s plans center around creating more resources for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Obama pointed to the University’s strength in PTSD research and treatment as the main reason why the new initiative was launched at Penn.

Obama stressed that PTSD is a natural and normal sign after military personnel have faced the violence of war.

“It should never be a source of stigma,” she said.

Biden added that one out of six veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have reported signs of PTSD.

Referring to Biden, School of Nursing Dean Afaf Meleis added that “when she sees a problem, she fixes it, and I love that because that’s what nurses do.”

Penn — which currently partners with Joining Forces — also works with the Veterans Administration to conduct PTSD research.

Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine professor Rosemary Polomano said that scientists at the Nursing School are leaders in critical research on PTSD.

“Penn Nursing scientists are all involved in team science with colleagues in the military who are part of the VA,” she said.

“You have come to the right university,” Meleis said. “We are committed to Joining Forces and ready to meet the needs of servicemen and women.”

Nursing professor Marilyn Stringer, who has had personal experience with those close to her managing PTSD, applauded Obama and Biden’s efforts.

“Many of my family and friends served in Vietnam and became victims of people who came back alive, but didn’t seek out the VA for their emotional needs because they felt guilty about being a survivor,” she said. “Survivors from the Vietnam era living with PTSD for many years try to manage it on their own, sometimes in unhealthy ways.”

Biden said that while the Department of Defense and the VA address and treat PTSD, many of today’s veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately seek help from healthcare providers outside the VA system.

Stringer hopes that, through more nursing schools participating in Joining Forces, the VA can become better equipped to serve more veterans.

“Nurses are the first people we see when we walk through the door” of a hospital, doctor’s office or clinic, Obama said. “Quite simply, nurses are the frontline of America’s healthcare, so it was very clear that we needed to call on all our nurses and nursing students.”

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