WEST POINT, N.Y. — First lady Michelle Obama urged more than 1,000 cadets Friday night on the brink of graduating to keep in mind the families of the soldiers they will lead.
Obama addressed the white-clad cadets and their families gathered in the U.S. Military Academy's castle-like mess hall for a graduation-eve banquet. It marked her first visit to the storied academy and dovetails with her recent work on behalf of military families.
She noted that more than half of service members are married and 40 percent have two or more kids.
"You'll be helping your troops deal with the joy of a new birth and the disappointment of not being in the delivery room," she said. "You'll be helping a soldier cope with a family emergency halfway around the world."
Obama is the only first lady to address cadets at their graduation banquet – a rare occasion for them to wear their dress whites and dine with their relatives. The mess hall was filled with thousands more family members in suits and dresses dining on filet mignon and garlic mashed potatoes.
Obama reminded cadets that they not only must support their soldiers' families, but that their families helped them to this point in their careers.
"So graduates, I want you to know that while this country is asking so much of you once you pin on those gold bars, we're not asking you to do it alone. You have your families that are with you today and every day."
Obama saluted the cadets for sticking through four grueling years at West Point during a time when their older classmates routinely packed off for Iraq and Afghanistan – some to never return. The cadets and the West Point families stood and clapped after Obama's speech. A cadet later presented her with a black-plumed military hat to remember her visit.
Though she's known for her campaign against childhood obesity, in recent months Obama has tried to shine a spotlight on the plight of military families and their problems such as frequent moves or raising children by themselves.
Last month, she and Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill launched Joining Forces, an initiative to help military families who face challenges such as frequently moving and having a parent or spouse at war.
"Your family will be your rock," she told cadets, "whether they're right next to you or across an ocean."
Using the blueprint from her childhood obesity effort, in which she urged businesses, non-profits and schools to fight the issue, Obama plans a similar effort for Joining Forces. Companies that have agreed to take part include Best Buy, Sears and Walmart.
Obama's visit to West Point and another on June 3 to Quantico Middle High School on the Marine Corps Base in Virginia underscores her commitment to the military, the White House said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to be the graduation speaker at West Point's commencement Saturday morning.