My Independence Day Weekend in Iraq With Dr. Biden
By Elaine Wilson, AFPS
July 6, 2010
It was the day before the long, Fourth of July weekend and I already was in holiday mode. My stepdaughter, who lives in Texas, was in town, and I was planning to load all of my children up and head to the beach where I intended to lounge for three days. I was counting down the minutes until my weekend could begin.
But then my office phone rang with an irresistible offer. I was invited to accompany Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to Iraq and write about Dr. Biden’s time there. I am an admirer of Dr. Biden and her support of military families, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend time with her.
Plus, I had always wanted go to this specific locale. Although I had traveled the world with the Air Force, I had never been to Iraq.
I broke the news to my family – who were surprisingly supportive — and the next day I was sitting in a plane, sandwiched in between reporters from Fox News and Politico. Fifteen hours and a stop in Germany later, and I was in Baghdad. I stepped off the plane and into the sweltering summer heat of Iraq. The temperature was expected to top out at 115, then cool down to a balmy 90 degrees at night, according to my iPhone.
That night was a blur, filled with briefings and meetings, and massive jet lag. We stayed in trailers on Camp Victory. I was disappointed at first that it wasn’t a private room – I had three roommates – and the bathroom was down a dimly lit rocky trail. But then I remembered the troops here, living in austere conditions nightly, and felt guilty for being so spoiled.
The next morning, I had the privilege of attending a naturalization ceremony for more than 150 servicemembers in Al Faw Palace, breathtaking in its marble-laden, extravagantly decorated beauty. The Bidens and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, presided over the ceremony.
The front rows were filled with servicemembers from every branch and representing more than 50 countries. And the room was packed with troops – peering out from second and third floor balconies — eager to support their fellow servicemembers for their accomplishment in becoming U.S. citizens. But also, I suspect, to catch a glimpse of the vice president and his wife.
The ceremony was moving, and after the troops took their citizenship oath, the audience’s applause easily filled the cavernous room.
The Bidens then stopped by the Oasis Dining Facility on Camp Victory. They circled the crowded room, taking time to speak to troops and civilians, never turning down a photo request. And when a soldier admired her high-heeled shoes, Dr. Biden took one off and held it up in their photo together.
Dr. Biden then took her tray over to a group of female servicemembers, handpicked due to their diverse family situations. The women represented single moms, dual-military couples and single soldiers. Dr. Biden urged them to be frank, and the women discussed everything from education to sexual assault while they ate their lunch.
Afterward, the vice president left to attend meetings with senior Iraqi leaders while his wife went to visit more U.S. servicemembers.
Dr. Biden first stopped by a fitness center to help 1st Armored Division soldiers kick off their Fourth of July celebration, which included a lively volleyball game. She was met with thunderous applause the moment she entered the room. She spent time talking with each soldier and posing for photos that I’m sure were e-mailed home shortly after the visit.
Dr. Biden next attended an Independence Day barbecue for the soldiers assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division’s 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The soldiers had eaten already, but lingered until she had a chance to say “Hi.” She drifted from table to table, making sure she met each soldier there before grabbing a steak and salad for herself.
Dr. Biden told them she felt like she was among family. “I’m a military mom, my son Beau is in the Army,” she said. “I feel like you are my extended family.” The Bidens’ son is a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard.
Dr. Biden summed up her holiday as “amazing.”
Our day was topped off with a Black Hawk helicopter ride to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. I had heard the vice president note the difference in Iraq; how even traffic jams were a positive sign. And I saw evidence of his comments – countless lights and busy roads – in the city below.
Dr. Biden made the most of her last day in Iraq. A 30-year educator herself, Dr. Biden held a roundtable discussion with female Iraqi teachers at the U.S. Embassy, listening to their education-related concerns. The women talked of outdated textbooks, lack of technology and poorly trained teachers while Dr. Biden intently listened.
Before her next stop, Dr. Biden paid a quick visit to a Marine security detachment assigned to the U.S. Embassy, never failing to say thanks or have a personal word with each servicemember.
She capped off her trip with a roundtable discussion of family related issues with Texas Army National Guard soldiers.
“I have a special place in my heart for the National Guard,” she told the group of about a dozen soldiers of the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team gathered in a small café here. Her son, she explained, was deployed here last year.
She encouraged them to bring up their family concerns to her, especially related to their homecoming in August and how the separation may have impacted their families. The soldiers brought up issues that ranged from support for single soldiers and their families to job opportunities for those who may have been laid off in recent months.
Dr. Biden pledged her ongoing support to the troops and their families. She encouraged them to send her an e-mail if they think of other issues or just to say they’re back home again.
My husband often says that taking care of troops and their families is a “sacred obligation,” Dr. Biden said. “[First Lady Michelle [Obama], the president and I are 100 percent behind that.”
I spoke to troops at each stop and heard nothing but admiration for Dr. Biden, whose caring and compassion for the troops were evident. Many said they appreciated that she opted to spend her holiday with them rather than at home with family, and others were glad they could share their concerns with someone in a position to make a difference.
I think the admiration was mutual.
“I don’t think I can really find words to express my gratitude and pride for our soldiers,” Dr. Biden told me in an interview. “It’s a great way to spend the Fourth of July, thanking our troops for what they’ve done for us.”
I agree. After just a few days in Iraq, in sparse quarters and egg-boiling heat, I was ready to leave. But the servicemembers I met had been there or were about to be there for a year. As the plane lifted off, I couldn’t help but think about their service and sacrifice that enables Americans to maintain their freedom.
On July Fourth, our nation celebrated Independence Day. And today, I want to say thank you to the U.S. servicemembers – especially the troops I met in Iraq — who help keep our way of life a reality.
For more on this trip, from Dr. Biden’s perspective, see her blog post at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/07/05/wrapping-my-visit-iraq