Iraq — My Weekend in Iraq With Dr. Biden

WASHINGTON — 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.

2nd Infantry Division's 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team
Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, speaks with sol­diers of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 4th Stryk­er Brigade Com­bat Team dur­ing an Inde­pen­dence Day bar­be­cue on Camp Vic­to­ry, Iraq, July 4, 2010.
DoD pho­to by Elaine Wil­son
Click to enlarge

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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)