Michelle Obama Honored With Namesake Award by Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Dole Foundation

Tom Hanks and Michelle Obama- Getty - Split - H 2019
GP Images/Getty Images; Jim Bennett/Getty Images

The Heroes and History Makers event held Wednesday feted the former first lady as well as Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Congressman Phil Row in recognition of their leadership on military caregiver issues on Capitol Hill.

The Washington Nationals may be making their first-ever appearance in the World Series, but a seat at a dinner with Tom Hanks and Michelle Obama was one of the hotter tickets in the nation’s capital this week.

The second annual Heroes and History Makers gala was held Wednesday night at D.C.’s The Anthem and honored the people who care for military families. The gala is part of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s efforts to bring awareness to the plight of our nation’s military caregivers, offering them both financial and emotional support.

For the second year in a row, Hidden Heroes Ambassador Savannah Guthrie emceed the evening, welcoming 900 attendees — among them family and friends who offer at-home and long-term care to America’s wounded or ill veterans.

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, herself a military caregiver (her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole, was injured during his service in World War II), was extolled by all in attendance as the driving force behind the initiative. Upon bringing Hanks, the Hidden Heroes Campaign chair, to the stage, Dole acknowledged the enormous boost the actor has provided for the campaign’s visibility. "I always knew Tom was the most trusted man in Hollywood, but I had no idea just how true to his word he would be. Tom [made] an ironclad promise that he has never failed to keep. He’s responded to every request, taken every phone call, and posed for every selfie," she said, referring to the scheduling hoops Hanks had to jump through in order to attend that evening’s event.

Dole also offered the audience this analogy: "Fred Rogers, whom Tom fittingly portrays in a film coming out next month, once said that at the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Tom, in the universe of America’s millions of military caregivers, you are the loving heart at the center that continues to beat. You are the one who wants the best for every person."

Over the course of the evening, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee received awards for their leadership on these issues on Capitol Hill, but the honoree who drew the biggest standing ovation from the bipartisan crowd was former first lady Obama, whom Hanks presented with his namesake award for her work as both a champion and an advocate for caregivers.

Hanks introduced Obama, explaining to the audience how she and Dole gathered a group of military caregivers at the White House to acknowledge their contributions to our country and ask how they could best support them and others in the same situation.

"Mrs. Obama and Dr. [Jill] Biden launched Joining Forces eight years ago to rally Americans around service members, veterans and their families," said the Oscar-winning actor. "Joining the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s vision, Mrs. Obama ensured that Joining Forces wrapped caregivers into their work."

Upon accepting her award, Obama acknowledged that she was just a representative of the larger team, and that "anything I’ve done on this issue pales in comparison to literally every single service member, every caregiver, every veteran, every military spouse and child I have ever met."

She also made a point to acknowledge "not just the difficulty of having your loved one in harm’s way, but the difficulties of building a career as you’re being sent from base to base ... the juggling of managing a household all alone, the underlying sense that no one outside of the military community could really understand what you’re going through."

Obama also pointed out the difficulty of being tied to military assignments and of translating the skills learned in the military to civilian jobs. "You’re why my husband signed a law for travel reimbursements and financial stipends for caregivers. You all are why we kept our foot on the gas with Joining Forces, whether that meant pushing businesses to commit to hire or train 1.5 million military veterans or spouses, or change licensing laws so that military spouses could keep their careers as they moved from base to base."

She thanked the crowd with: "You all have changed me forever. You’ve changed the way that I see service. You’ve changed the way that I see war. You’ve changed the way I see this entire country."

Before Hanks' wife Rita Wilson took to the stage to perform at the gala, he told The Hollywood Reporter about his ongoing involvement with the organization: "Between some of the films that I’ve made, I have received a vast education on the type of service that was never asked of me because I was too young and there was no draft law. So this is a way of giving back," he said. As for the potential of telling the caregivers’ stories on the big screen, Hanks added that he thought a smaller format would be a better fit.

"Movies require the kind of glamour that makes people want to pay the 17 bucks in order to go see the film," the actor said, suggesting that maybe the subject was more in line with a documentary. "Quite frankly, I got tears looking at some of the B-roll of the caregivers we have tonight."