WASHINGTON (AP) — In her first solo White House event as first lady, Jill Biden went right into teacher mode Wednesday as she honored “hidden heroes” — the children and caregivers of injured U.S. troops.
“My gosh," she said brightly to the little girl who had introduced her, a 9-year-old named Gabby whose father suffered debilitating injuries during deployment to Iraq as a Marine. “You did such a beautiful job. Such a beautiful job."
She also thanked Gabby's little sister Ava, who clutched a security blanket as she stood nearby. Biden told both girls they “make your family so proud."
“From a young age, hidden helpers learn the cost of our wars up close,” Biden told the audience.
Biden was joined in the East Room by veterans' families, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. The cause is personal to Biden, whose late son Beau earned a Bronze Star in Iraq.
Biden said she often visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2009, when wars were raging in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I would sit near the beds of the wounded warriors, usually with a spouse close by, and listen to their stories of courage and sacrifice," she said. “Over time, I built relationships with those families. And my heart went out to the spouses who cared for them — so often young moms, bouncing babies on their hips.”
She said she still thinks about the children in those hospital rooms.
“I think about how they have grown up like Gabby and Ava, helping their dad cope with an injury that they can’t see,” she said.
Earlier this year, the White House Joining Forces initiative teamed up with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project to launch Hidden Helpers, designed to provide support for the children of America’s 5.5 million military caregivers.
One wife and mother, Sylvia Lopez, spoke of how her children have helped with their father's illness, adding that they have places to hide when their dad has flashbacks.
“Our children are wonderful, and they helped me so much, but no child is prepared to handle these responsibilities,” Lopez said. “They have struggled socially because I cannot leave my husband's side.”
Biden said she understood how difficult the children's lives can be and added that they should not have to face the trauma alone.
“Our troops and their families need to know that if they ever face injuries, illnesses or wounds, we will have your back,” she said.
She ended the event singing “Happy Birthday” to a soon-to-be 7-year-old boy as he was presented with a cupcake.
Colleen Long, The Associated Press