Michelle Obama Speaks at Hollywood Guild Event Moderated by J.J. Abrams

Michelle Obama - US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to an audience - 2011
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

"The wars are coming to a close, but the real work continues," the First Lady said before a crowd of 400 invited guests.

Michelle Obama joined a panel of military family members in an event hosted by AFTRA, DGA, PGA (the Producers Guild), SAG and WGA in Los Angeles on Monday to promote her initiative supporting military families, the Joining Forces program.

“The wars are coming to a close, but the real work continues,” said Obama in remarks before a crowd of 400 invited guests at the WGA theater. “I urge you to do what you do best: Be creative, funny, dramatic and move us.”

The above groups have formed a task force charged with providing support to the Joining Forces program, coordinated by producer Bruce Cohen. In addition, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon told The Hollywood Reporter that the union will be creating training programs for veterans seeking to enter the entertainment industry.

“The stories are larger than life and also real,” commented moderator and writer-director J.J. Abrams. “And,” he quipped, “the rights are available.”

Available or not, at least some of the stories are already being told. One is that of former Cpl. J.R. Martinez of the 101st Airborne Division, who was in the audience. Trapped inside a burning Humvee for at least 10 minutes after the vehicle hit a landmine in Iraq, the then-19 year-old Martinez suffered near-fatal third degree burns on his face, neck and hands.

Thirty-three separate operations ensued, and Martinez was left severely disfigured, but he managed to endure the pain of treatment, snap out of his depression, and even become a motivational speaker and do non-profit work for wounded soldiers. Then one day in 2008, he got a multiply-forwarded email from the casting director of “All My Children.” The show had decided to launch a three-month storyline about the difficulties returning veterans faced, and to cast the role with a real veteran.

Martinez had no acting experience, but he auditioned -- and got the part. He connected so well with audiences that his character subsequently joined the local police force. Martinez continues to act on the show, and told THR that he wants to continue and expand his acting career. He’s also working on a memoir.

Another unlikely actor turned out to be Obama herself: After the panel, she taped an appearance on the Nickelodeon program iCarly to talk about Joining Forces. (The show’s leading character is the daughter of an American service member currently stationed overseas.) At the panel, she said that, although she had studied her lines, she was “terrified” at the prospect of appearing on the show.

Obama also spent time in Los Angeles on Monday attending campaign fundraising events in Pasadena and Bel Air.

The panel included including Arnita Brigman Moore, wife of Marine Staff Sergeant Moore, who has served in the Army for 16 years; retired Sgt. Bobby Jarman, a 22-year Army veteran whose wife Dorothy Jarman is an 18-year Army vet currently deployed overseas; and Capt. Kelly Smith, a National Guard Aircraft Commander who is one of three sisters who are military pilots.

In a dramatic moment, Smith was connected live via Skype with her sister, Army Chief Warrant Officer Lacey Smith, currently serving as a combat helicopter pilot in Afghanistan.

Moore, who also has a daughter in the military, declared herself a fan of Lifetime’s Army Wives, which follows a fictional group of service members and their families living on an Army base. The show’s creator, WGA West board of directors member Katherine Fugate, is active in the inter-guild task force supporting Joining Forces.

Commenting on the morning, DGA secretary-treasurer Gil Cates called it a “wonderful and moving event,” a feeling evidently shared by the entire room as stories unspooled during a pre-panel video and ensuing panel discussion. There was applause and multiple standing ovations for Obama, the panelists, and others whose stories were told.

Announced during the panel was an upcoming series of three Joining Forces PSAs starring Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. They’re set to air starting in July. In addition, Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated songwriter Dianne Warren has donated an original, unreleased song, entitled “Compass” and performed by Grammy and CMA Award-winning country stars Rascal Flatts, for use in the PSA campaign.

Joining Forces is intended to encourage support from communities, organizations, and businesses for military families. It encompasses a range of industries in addition to entertainment.

Email: jhandel@att.net
Twitter: @jhandel