WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2011 — Navy Capt. Brad Cooper is third-generation military, but unlike most of his fellow officers, he doesn’t work on a military installation or aboard a ship.
Cooper’s office is tucked away in the East Wing of the White House. Each day he heads down halls lined with black-framed photos of the first lady on recent trips, and past rooms filled with memorabilia from past presidential events. Cooper’s military presence in the civilian-dominated White House echoes his mission there: to help in building a bridge between military families and the people seeking to support them. As the new executive director of the White House’s “Joining Forces” campaign — championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden — it’s Cooper’s job to rally national support from all sectors of society to honor and support service members, veterans and their families.
“I want to focus on the extraordinary [nature] of military families and veterans who have been asked to do a lot over the course of a decade of war,” he said in an interview with American Forces Press Service, “and bridge that with the extraordinary capacity of the nation to lend a hand.”
This soft-spoken officer brings a lifetime of experience to the job. He grew up in a military family — his father and grandfather both served in the Army — and he now has a wife and two children of his own. He’s commanded a guided missile destroyer and worked for senior military leaders at the Pentagon.
He’s also served 10 deployments and has moved a whopping 27 times in the course of his own career and his father’s. His children, he said, have each attended 10 different schools.
As a result, he’s intimately familiar with the challenges military families face, he said, from the frequent moves and deployments to the career and education challenges.
“I’ve been there as a kid, and understand as a parent,” he said. “The challenge is the nation has asked so much of [military families] over the past 10 years, in particular, the tempo that’s been asked,” he added. “That’s where the challenge really resides.”
Joining Forces is intended to ease some of the burden for military families and veterans, he explained, with a focus on public awareness, employment, education and wellness.
The first lady and Biden launched the national initiative with great fanfare in April, and since that time, have made great inroads into these areas, he noted.
In late June, Biden and Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, launched the Military Spouse Employment Program to expand career opportunities for military spouses worldwide, and to recognize the skills and talents they bring to the employment table. Two months later, 72 companies have 43,000 jobs on the Web, and another 200 companies are coming in behind to make commitments, the captain said.
Companies are stepping up to hire veterans as well, he said. For example, Siemans committed to hiring 300 veterans and spouses at the Joining Forces rollout. The company reached its goal in two months, and announced it would hire 150 more.
Additionally, the Chamber of Commerce has committed to holding 100 spouse and veteran career fairs over the course of a year, Cooper said, and hundreds of people have been hired as a result of that commitment. Dozens of other companies are making similar employment commitments, he added.
“A lot of that speaks to a patriotic dimension, but I also think … it’s good business sense,” he said. “This is a talented group — veterans and spouses — and that should be a compelling argument of why you do it.”
Companies also are helping with credentialing and training to help in facilitating the path to employment, Cooper noted, citing AT&T as an example. The company has committed to offering information technology credentialing to 10,000 veterans over the next two years, he said.
Cooper said he recently spoke with the Council of Governors and they identified three issues in which states can make a difference: professional licensing for spouses, the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, and job credentialing for transitioning service members.
Job licensing remains a big issue for military spouses, who often have to start from scratch on a license when they move to another state, Cooper noted. “This is a big deal, with almost 40 percent of spouses who are full-time employees being in some sort of a profession with a license,” he said.
The education compact, which eases transitions between schools for military children, encompasses 39 out of 50 states, he noted, but the goal is to get all of the states on board. “This is impacting my child and children of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “It’s time to do it, and the first lady is a great voice to push this forward.”
The council committed unanimously to doing everything it could to move those pieces forward, Cooper said. “In a very positive way, it speaks to what we’re trying to do with Joining Forces,” he added.
The first lady, he noted, often says the initiative’s impact needs to be felt at a personal level.
“What impacts people is employment, jobs, health and well-being, and your child’s education,” he said. “We’re hitting these areas to make it personal.”
Since they launched Joining Forces, Obama and Biden have hit the road to spread their message of military family support nationwide, and Cooper recently joined their travels. This summer, he accompanied the first lady to Fayetteville, S.C., for the filming of an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” episode featuring a Navy veteran who houses homeless female veterans.
He also traveled with the first lady and Dr. Biden to New Hampshire for a military family cookout and with the first lady to Naval Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., to attend a screening of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” along with hundreds of military family members.
The “Extreme Makeover” trip, Cooper noted, was a great example of Joining Forces at work — from the 3,000 people who volunteered to help build the home to the people who stood in the scorching heat for hours to support the homeowner veteran. On each of their trips, Cooper said, the first lady and Biden took time to talk to military families as well as to people in the community. People often ask what they can do to help military families, he said, and the first lady usually answers, “Do what you do best.”
Business owners can hire military spouses, universities can connect with veterans, and individuals can help by mowing a lawn or watching a military parent’s kids, Cooper pointed out. “It’s a pretty broad spectrum, and in between are thousands of opportunities,” he added.
While they may not know exactly how, Cooper said, it’s evident people want to help. He cited the huge success of the Operation Honor Cards program, which encourages people to volunteer for community service to honor the service of military families. In just a few months, people have pledged nearly 7 million hours and served nearly 3.5 million hours. The goal, he noted, was 2.5 million.
“I think it’s indicative of where the country is in terms of what the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] calls the sea of goodwill,” Cooper said. “It manifests in different ways.”
Military families pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, he noted, but still, they need help. “Let’s leverage the extraordinary capacity of the nation to give help,” he said.
Cooper’s service at the White House is temporary, but he said he hopes the Joining Forces initiative is anything but.
“This isn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “This is about delivering attention and focusing effort on families and veterans for the long haul.”
The first lady often says everyone can do something, Cooper said. “What that is, in doing something, is the bridge that needs to get built,” he said. “And the great piece is it’s our bridge to build.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)