Reintegration, education and support for single soldiers’ families were among the issues Texas Army National Guard soldiers raised here yesterday during a roundtable discussion with Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden.
Dr. Biden was in Iraq with her husband over the weekend to visit with troops for the Fourth of July holiday and to meet with senior Iraqi leaders. Dr. Biden met with several military units while there, but showed a personal interest in speaking to Guard members.
“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 out of Houston who had gathered in a small café here. Her son, Beau, she explained, is in the Delaware Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq last year.
An ongoing issue she’s heard about, she said, is education. National Guard families don’t live on a base, she explained, and the schools their children attend may not be aware that their parent is deployed or how to identify deployment-related issues. Dr. Biden encouraged the Guard members, who are due to return home in August, to share their family related concerns with her, particularly regarding their separation and homecoming.
“When our son came home for [leave], and then had to go back again, his kids were affected. How could they not be?” she said. “I think I understand some of what you may be going through, but it’s nice to hear what you’re experiencing, what we can help you with, what [First Lady] Michelle [Obama] and I should be working.”
A young mother spoke up, expressing concerns about her relationship with her 16-month-old daughter. She’s worried, she said, about re-establishing a bond with her, noting there are other mothers in her unit who also had to deploy shortly after giving birth.
Dr. Biden assured her that a mother-daughter bond is unshakable. Once they’re together, “I’m sure it’s going to be like you never left,” she said.
Another Guard member requested more support for single soldiers without extended families. Many soldiers may be returning home, she said, only to be alone. Dr. Biden said her son has expressed some of the same concerns for soldiers, and brought up the idea of a post-deployment “buddy system” to facilitate soldiers looking out for one another.
Another soldier noted the importance of units communicating with the single soldiers’ extended families, whose only source of information may be their son or daughter. Army Col. Mark Dempsey, brigade commander, encouraged these soldiers to bring their parents or another loved one to Guard events so they can be included in information and updates.
A mother of four said she was grateful that she was a military spouse before becoming a soldier. Unlike many others, she said, was aware of the available support programs. She was especially grateful to her children’s school, she said, which e-mailed her with updates on her children and sent letters regularly. But others, she noted, might not have that same familiarity with military support programs.
Other concerns centered on employment, children with special needs, and alcohol and drug abuse among returning soldiers.
Serving in the Guard is a “tough job,” Dr. Biden acknowledged, with soldiers having to transition quickly from deployment to the civilian workplace. A servicemember may be a soldier one day and an accountant the next, she said as an example, forced to move rapidly “from one world to another.”
Dempsey stressed the importance of robust family support. His unit has frequent family events through its family readiness program, he told Dr. Biden, and prides itself on its efforts to keep families connected.
The colonel said his unit has a Family Readiness Program “smart book” that leaders can use as a reference for family issues ranging from finances to car trouble, and also coordinates mission-ready exercises for leaders, during which they run through scenarios that highlight typical family issues or crises that occur during a deployment.
The commander said over the course of the first two-day training session, he saw “tremendous growth” in the leaders. “It sounds like you really have a great support network,” Dr. Biden told the soldiers.
Dr. Biden thanked the soldiers for their candid comments and suggestions, and vowed to continue her ongoing support of servicemembers and their families. She’s been visiting with military families around the world, she noted.
“We want to support you and hear what you have to say, and work on the issues that affect you and your families,” she said.
Dr. Biden encouraged the soldiers to send her an e-mail if they think of other issues, or just to let her know that they’re home safe.
Vice President Biden often says that taking care of troops and their families is a “sacred obligation,” she said. “The president, Michelle [Obama] and I all are 100 percent behind that.”
Dr. Biden met yesterday with about a dozen female Iraqi teachers -- ranging from elementary- to university-level English teachers – at the U.S. Embassy here to hear their education-related concerns.
Several of the women had been to America on an exchange program; one called her time there life-changing. She now works for the Iraqi Education Initiative, which aims to send 10,000 Iraqi women to the United States and the United Kingdom to study. The first group left two weeks ago, she said.
Iraq needs to send its future teachers outside the country to learn and then send them back so they can train others, she said.
Another woman agreed, noting that many teachers in Iraq need improvement. Out of a class of 45 English students, she cited as an example, only five may have a good grasp of the English language, but the rest will move on anyway, though lacking in teaching skills. They’ll then go on to teach others English improperly, she said.
Other women commented that their books are outdated – some use books from the 1950s – and that there’s a lack of online courses and Internet availability. The focus needs to be on younger students, another woman added.
Dr. Biden, an educator for 30 years, agreed that quality education needs to start at the elementary-school level.
After talking with the teachers, Dr. Biden made a quick stop to visit with Marines assigned to the Embassy. She spoke to each Marine there, thanking them for their service.
After a whirlwind, three-day trip, the Bidens flew back to Washington last night.
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