UPDATED 11/15/11 9:03 a.m.

Before Michelle Obama was born, her father served in the Army. Growing up in Chicago, she would often comb through black-and-white photos of her father in his uniform.1

Today, as First Lady of the United States, Obama has made it a priority of her office to help military men and women and their spouses make the difficult transition out of a uniform and into the private sector.

With tens of thousands of military personnel soon to end deployment in Iraq and to begin drawing down in Afghanistan, the Joining Forces initiative Obama started with Jill Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden, has gained urgency.

Monday afternoon, just before returning to Washington, D.C., the First Lady brought her initiative to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Speaking after a jobs fair coordinated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama assured more than 200 returning vets, military spouses and their families: “America does have you back.”

‘Best Bet Is A Vet’

Obama, running late, arrived at the Hickam Officers Club about an hour after the jobs fair wrapped up.

Nearly 600 people had turned out for the event, including a handful of recently returned Iraq veterans, said Ross Cohen, senior director of programs and operations for the Chamber’s Veterans Employment Program.

“I think it went great,” he told Civil Beat. “We were anticipating 400 job seekers but we got 575. That’s very exciting.”

Fifty-three employers were on hand, including CVS, Walmart, Prudential and the FBI. Local companies included the Bank of Hawaii and Tesoro Hawaii.

“As you look across the base, we are reminded daily of the heritage, history and sacrifice of our veterans, from the Arizona Memorial to the Hickam Freedom Tower to the Battleship Missouri, all memorials to the heroes who served here,” said Captain Jeffrey James, base commander, in his remarks to the audience on hand for Obama. “We in turn have a commitment to their families. We are committed to assist them when they no longer where the cloth of our nation.”

James concluded: “The best bet is a vet.”

One of those vets is Kevin Schmiegel. He served 20 years in the Marine Corp, retiring two years ago as a colonel.

Schmiegel said he was one of the lucky ones because he was helped in transitioning by Ret. Marine Gen. Jim Jones, a former United States National Security Advisor. Schmiegel was hired by the chamber as vice president of the Veterans Employment Program.

“Not every veteran is that lucky, especially our newest generation of veterans,” said Schmiegel. “Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering from 12 percent unemployment, and one out of four spouses are unemployed. In my mind that is unacceptable.”

With the drawdown overseas, he said, “It will only get worse unless we take hiring our heroes seriously now.”

Shouldn’t Have To ‘Fight For A Job’

That message was repeated by the First Lady, who was welcomed by whoops from many in the crowd.

“As my husband has said, no one who has fought for their country abroad should have to fight for a job when they return home,” said Obama. “I am awed by the sacrifices you have made to defend our country.”

Obama said that the response to the Joining Forces initiative has been “overwhelming, and that’s the good news,” adding that businesses have “stepped forward” and committed to hire as many as 125,000 vets by 2014.

She urged the audience to visit a website specifically recruiting for veterans.

The First Lady also welcomed the return of the USS Hopper to Pearl Harbor on Monday.

“That’s good news, that’s wonderful news,” she said. “Hopefully by the year’s end there will be a lot more of that kind of good news all across the country.”

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