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Family Matters Blog: Blogger Joins Bidens’ West Coast Trip

By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2012 – Last week, I traveled to California to join Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, as she embarked on a West Coast Joining Forces tour.

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Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, participates in a roundtable discussion with educators, students and military family members at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Jan. 19, 2012. The discussion spotlighted programs created through the Building Capacity in Military-connected Schools project, a consortium of eight military-connected school districts, the Department of Defense Education Activity and the University of Southern California. DOD photo by Elaine Sanchez

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Dr. Biden had arrived with her husband a day earlier than me, so I caught up with her at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she was participating in a roundtable discussion on military kids and how schools across the nation can better support them.

She sat amid a group of educators, social workers and students involved in the Building Capacity in Military-connected Schools project, which helps to create military-friendly environments in schools and to raise awareness of their challenges among educators.

The participants took turns sharing their consortium success stories for Biden. Gena Truitt, a prior service member, military mom and social work intern, talked about how she created the Pride Club at an elementary school to foster camaraderie among military kids.

Robin Williamson, a Navy wife and school liaison officer, described how she helped to create transition rooms in 11 military-impacted San Diego-area schools. Families use the rooms to learn about school and community resources, and to create connections with other military families.

Biden wrapped up the roundtable by thanking the educators for their work and for rising to the Joining Forces challenge. “What you’re doing is a perfect example of how we want to change things in America, where every state, every school district has programs like this,” she said. “You’re doing exactly what needs to be done.”

After the roundtable, I drove down the coast to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, where Dr. Biden was headed the next day.

In the morning, I followed the media trail of cars down a very long and winding dirt road to the infantry immersion trainer. This state-of-the-art training complex simulates situations Marines may encounter in Afghanistan.

We were escorted to the top of a building, across the way from Dr. Biden, to gain a bird’s eye view of a live-fire exercise.

A Marine patrol entered a simulated Afghan bazaar and, moments later, a loud explosion echoed in the air. A female Afghan, whose leg had been “blown off,” fell to the ground screaming in pain. The Marines rushed to help her as a rocket-propelled grenade, shot from Biden’s rooftop, flew past.

The overall experience was incredible, Dr. Biden told us on her way out.

“It’s been an amazing experience to be here,” she said. “It made me realize just how difficult it is for our military when they go to Afghanistan and when they went to Iraq.

“Americans should be really proud,” she added.

The next stop was about 20 miles away – I later found out that Pendleton is the second largest Marine Corps installation, after Twentynine Palms -- at an explosive ordnance disposal unit. EOD specialists are the ones who detect explosives and dispose of them, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military.

A crowd of EOD Marines and their families had gathered to meet Dr. Biden and enjoy a barbecue lunch, which I eyed hungrily but unfortunately due to time, was unable to partake in.

While Dr. Biden was given a tour of the unit, I chatted with some of the family members. I approached two young women, both Gold Star wives, with several children between them. Chrissy Holley teared up as she told me her husband, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Floyd Holley, had been killed in Afghanistan. Holley was serving in Helmand province in 2010 when he was struck by a blast from a homemade bomb. Another woman held her 10 day-old-baby close. Her husband had been killed in Afghanistan in August.

It was gratifying to see these women there, still embraced by their husbands’ unit.

In brief remarks to the crowd, Dr. Biden thanked the Marines, family members and Gold Star wives and moms, adding the thanks of First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I know Michelle would want me to say … thank you for everything you’re doing, for your service to this country, because in this administration you are our priority, to make sure you are well taken care of,” she said. “It’s our sacred honor to take care of you.”

As a food line formed, Dr. Biden mingled with the crowd, giving hugs and posing for pictures with nearly everyone there.

On her way out, Dr. Biden stopped to view a wall of portraits, a solemn tribute to fallen EOD members and Navy corpsmen.

Dr. Biden’s last stop was the Warrior Hope and Care Center. This 30,000-square-foot center opened on Pendleton in October to offer counseling and transition services to wounded and ill Marines, sailors and their families.

The vice president, who had been attending events in Los Angeles earlier that day, joined his wife for the visit.

Once again with a crowd of media, I was escorted into a small room where the vice president and Dr. Biden were already visiting with about a dozen wounded warriors and their families.

“We only have one sacred obligation in the government,” Biden told the troops. “We have a lot of obligations -- to the old, to the young, to educate -- but we have only one sacred obligation, and that is to equip those we send to war and care for those we bring home from war.

“It is the single most significant obligation the United States of America has,” he added.

The Bidens then mingled with the wounded warriors and their families. As Dr. Biden chatted with troops in the back of the room, the vice president spoke for several minutes to Marine Corps Sgt. James Amos, who lost both his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan on June. 6.

I later asked Amos what the vice president had said to him. Biden mostly thanked him for his service, he told me.

Biden also thanked a veteran of a prior war. He knelt down to speak to World War II veteran Thomas Marino, seated in a wheelchair near his son, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. David Marino and wife, Laura.

All too quickly, it was time for me to go. As I was escorted out, I glanced back for a moment. The vice president had donned a Semper Fi cap and was seated on a coach with a wounded warrior and his family, as Dr. Biden sat at a table with young Marines nearby.

I overheard the vice president telling his aide to pass out his card so the troops could reach him directly.

It was a whirlwind trip, but a worthy one. The Bidens’ visit was visible proof that the service and sacrifice represented here – from the Marines training on those dusty roads to the Gold Star wives at the EOD unit to these wounded warriors seated in this room – doesn’t go unnoticed by our nation and its leaders.

A few moments earlier, the vice president had told the wounded warriors the nation owes them a debt that could never be repaid. “We owe you. We owe you guys more than anybody could ever be able to repay you,” he told them. I couldn’t agree more.

For more on this trip, read my American Forces Press Service articles: Bidens Visit Wounded Warriors, Families at Pendleton  and Dr. Biden Thanks Marines, Families on Pendleton.


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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, holds 15-month-old Sienna during a visit to the 1st Marine Logistics Group’s explosive ordnance disposal unit on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jan. 20, 2012. Sienna’s mother, Chrissy Holley, is a Gold Star wife. Her husband, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Floyd Holley, died in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2010 when he was hit by a blast from an improvised explosive device. DOD photo by Elaine Sanchez   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVice President Joe Biden speaks with double amputee Marine Corps Sgt. James Amos during a visit to the Warrior Hope and Care Center on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jan. 20, 2012. Amos was injured in Afghanistan on June 6, 2011. DOD photo by Elaine Sanchez   
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