By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
Soldiers were crowded onto bleachers -- a sea of camouflage uniforms – and let out a thunderous cheer and applause at the sight of Dr. Jill Biden, who glided in with her signature warm smile. She was dressed to the nines in a chic dress and heels, seemingly unaffected by the rocky terrain and egg-boiling July temperatures.
The soldiers quickly formed a huge, snaking line to meet her, each with a camera or smart phone in hand. Biden warmly greeted each soldier with a few words and a motherly hug, and posed for photo after photo with anyone who asked.
“I’m a military mom,” she told them, referring to her son, Army Capt. Beau Biden of the Delaware Army National Guard. “I feel like you are my extended family.”
The Bidens had arrived early that morning to celebrate Fourth of July with troops serving in
. But when the vice president headed off on business -- he was meeting with senior Iraqi leaders about the security transition there -- his wife chose to stay behind to take care of some business of her own: meeting with as many troops as possible. Iraq
She also wanted to walk across the same rocky terrain, high heels and all, that her son had walked in his combat boots during his deployment a year before.
Biden stopped by dining halls and work places, attended barbecues and crawled into a stifling hot Stryker combat vehicle during a tour. Everywhere she went, she not only thanked troops for their service, but also asked them about their challenges and the challenges their families were facing back home -- all part of her ongoing quest to boost awareness of and support to military families.
It’s a cause she said is shared by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as by the vice president.
“We’re really focused –- Michelle and I, and Barack and Joe -- we’re all focused on helping to make life better for military families,” Biden told American Forces Press Service. “I think that people know that. … They know that we’re on their side and we have their backs.”
Since her husband took office nearly two years ago, Biden has been tireless in her work to bring light to the challenges military families face. With the first lady at her side, she has filmed public service announcements and online messages, has hosted several nonprofit military-support organizations -- including Delaware Boots on the Ground -- at the White House for listening sessions and working groups, and encourages Americans to offer a helping hand at every turn.
Biden’s highly publicized quest has attained her star-like status among servicemembers and their families, as evidenced by her reception in
. Her public mission, however, is driven by a “very personal” desire to help, she said. Iraq
Biden credits her soldier son as the inspiration behind her work to boost military family support. She met many families through him after he joined the service in 2003, and then others on the campaign trail with her husband.
“When I would travel and would hear their stories, it just really strengthened my commitment,” she said. “I felt we really needed to get the message out to Americans.”
Her son’s deployment to
in the fall of 2008 only strengthened her commitment more, Biden said. His service in a combat zone drove home for Biden the fears and anxieties military families face, and gave her an affinity for the loved ones left behind. Iraq
“When I go to deployments or homecoming ceremonies, I think that I’m drawn to other mothers and they’re drawn to me, because we have this common experience and common bond of having a child who’s in the service,” Biden said. “I know what they’re going through, I know what it feels like, I know what it’s like to have a child in the war zone, and I think really, words don’t even need to be spoken.
“I just feel like putting my arms around them and they feel like putting their arms around me,” she continued. “It’s unspoken; it’s just a bond.”
Biden leaned on many of these families, as well as her community, for support throughout the deployment. People who knew that her son was deployed would “come up and say, ‘I’m praying for your son,’” she said. “That meant a lot.”
Still, she added, she had a tough time facing the holidays without him.
“It was tough to get through,” she said. “I know what that feels like to have dinner and be thinking constantly of your son and daughter who’s not there at the table, or that Christmas. … Just coming down Christmas morning.”
To brighten his holiday, Biden shipped her son’s stocking to him in
. “Of course, I cried when I sent it to him, but then I cried when he gave it back to me, because it was dirty and … I knew where it had been. Iraq
“I didn’t expect it, but it was very emotional,” she said with a slight break in her voice.
With the holidays again at hand, Biden is grateful to have her son at home this year, but is keenly aware that other military families aren’t so lucky. To help, she often invites military members and their families into her home around the holidays. Most recently, Biden invited about 50 Washington-area children, including 25 from National Guard families, into her home at the U.S. Naval Observatory for a holiday party that included letter writing to deployed and wounded troops.
Biden spoke to the children in her living room, in the shadow of a 12-foot, red-trimmed Christmas tree, before the day’s festivities began. She proudly singled out a family photo -- one of dozens scattered on nearly every surface of her home -- for the children: a picture of her soldier son with his own son in his arms. It was taken when he returned home after a year in
, she told them. Iraq
Biden asked the children if they had a family member deployed. Nearly all of the Guard children either knew of someone who was deployed or someone who had just returned.
After she spoke, the children scattered, some off to decorate cookies and others ornaments, but Biden stayed behind to make a holiday card for a deployed troop with a small group of children. She sat on the floor next to them and carefully adorned the front with red ornament-shaped stickers and a hand-drawn holiday tree.
“Thank you for your service to our country,” she wrote inside the card. “Come home safely.”
Biden takes that message of gratitude everywhere she travels -– whether to the deserts of
or to a stateside gathering of spouses. But, even more important to her is her message of support. Iraq
In her travels, she never fails to ask a servicemember or family member how she can help. When she asks about their challenges, she said, education and health care issues most commonly top the list.
Education issues, in particular, are near and dear to her heart. Biden is a 30-year educator with a doctorate in educational leadership. And as an English professor at
in Northern Virginia Community College , Biden is believed to be the first wife of a vice president to hold a paying job while her husband was in office. Alexandria, Va.
Transfer issues usually figure prominently on the list of military families’ education concerns, Biden said.
“The kids move from school to school to school, and we’re trying to make it easier to get the records transferred,” she said, “so if they’ve taken English in one school, it will count for credit in another school. We’re trying to make that pathway a lot easier.”
Health care is another pressing area of concern, Biden said. The Obama administration is working to boost health care services not only for the physical wounds of war, but for the emotional ones as well. It’s not easy to transition to life back home after the 24/7 vigilance of war, she said, particularly for members of the Guard and reserves.
“One minute you’re in a war zone, … and a week later you’re back at your job -- whether it’s in a store selling something or whether you’re a mechanic, or working in a bank -- trying to take those two worlds and put them together,” she said. “It’s difficult to transition, I think, no matter how strong you are.
“We’re trying to help with all of that,” she added.
Biden also often hears from spouses who are frustrated by their inability to find employment. Frequent moves can create job instability for military spouses, particularly for those without portable careers, such as child care, teaching or nursing.
Biden said she was glad to personally assist a military spouse recently through a mentoring program she participates in at her job for women over 30. She helped an Army wife from
, look for available scholarships. Fort Belvoir, Va.
“She’s moved so many times, taken so many courses –- she’s trying to get her degree, and she’s trying to find a way to pay for it,” Biden said.
Military family life is tough, Biden said, particularly in light of this decade of war. She feels military families are weathering the difficulties with grace, but must “be strong, stay strong,” she said.
Biden said she hopes the work she’s doing can make an impact, and that she will continue, with the first lady at her side, to create awareness.
“We’re trying to make things better,” she said, “whether it’s health care, education, whatever it happens to be, whatever their needs are, we’re trying to address those and make life better.”
Last month, Biden and the first lady pointed out some of the progress that’s been made on behalf of military families at the Women’s Conference 2010 in
The president has strengthened support programs and counseling services and increased funds for housing, child care and career development, the first lady said. Long Beach, Calif.
“He’s extended the Family and Medical Leave Act to more military families and caregivers, and we’re working with states to streamline requirements so that spouses don`t have to reapply for professional credentials and take new tests every time they move," she said.
But this isn’t a quest that leaders can take on alone, Biden told American Forces Press Service. She stressed the need for all Americans to reach out to military families, whether in their communities, churches or schools -- a call to action the first lady and Biden repeat at every opportunity.
Many individuals and nonprofit organizations already have taken on the cause, and have made inroads in offering support ranging from wounded warrior care to veteran employment. Biden had a few helpful hints for others who are unsure of how they can help.
“I always tell men and women to look at their strengths,” she said.
Talented organizers can arrange to have care packages shipped, for example, and people in the food industry can arrange to have food shipped to deployed troops over the holidays, Biden suggested. And on a more everyday level, “If you’re traveling and you’re in an airport and you see … servicemen and women, buy them a cup of coffee and just say thank you.”
Biden also steers people to the United We Serve website, where people can gain a wealth of ideas by seeing what service projects and volunteer work others have done.
Biden’s affinity for military families and her role as a military mom have earned her credibility in the historically close-knit military community.
Sheila Casey, wife of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., attended Biden’s holiday party for children. As she watched the Bidens mingle, she praised the administration’s efforts on behalf of military families.
“They can reach audiences we can’t reach,” she said, “and help the military as a whole.”
Biden said she hopes to make that type of big-picture impact, but is doing so, in many cases, one family at a time. She encourages the servicemembers and families she meets to call or e-mail her and promises to respond. While in
, Biden urged a group of Guard soldiers to drop her a line if they have an issues they’d like to bring up, or just to let her know that they’re home safe. Iraq
It’s the least she can do for the military men and women so selflessly serving, she said, and for their loved ones back home who feel the same caring and concern she has for her soldier son.