Dempseys, Bidens honor survivors; Biden shares loss
ARLINGTON, Va., May 25, 2012 – The first family of the military joined the second family of the United States here today in support of relatives of those who died while serving their country.
“We’re here to honor you this weekend,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, standing alongside his wife, Deanie, told some 2,000 people who gathered at a Marriott hotel to start the 18th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar. TAPS, or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, is a nonprofit group that supports surviving families of fallen service members.
“Most Americans have not had the life-altering experience of being handed a folded flag like all of you have,” Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
“You are the face of these two wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dempsey said. “We honor your sacrifice … and will never forget it.”
“We’re with you,” he added. “I promise you that.”
Dempsey said he was honored to share the stage with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. “I can tell you, their heart is exactly where you want it to be,” he told the audience.
Looking out over a sea of red TAPS “Survivor” t-shirts, Biden shared his own personal story of loss with the audience. It was just a few weeks after his first election to the U.S. Senate on Dec. 18, 1972 when the call came into his Washington office that his wife and three very young children had been in a car crash.
“Just like you guys, you can tell by the tone of that phone call,” he said. “You can feel it in your bones.”
Biden was told that his wife, Neilia, and their one-year-old daughter, were both dead. “They were not sure if my sons would make it,” he told the hushed crowd.
“I know people meant well when they came up and said, ‘Joe, I know how you feel,’ but they didn’t have a damn idea,” he said as some clapped with empathy.
“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could contemplate suicide,” Biden said. “Because you’ve been to the top of the mountain and you knew you’d never get there again.
“No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter,” he added.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I was angry,” Biden said, adding that the devastation tested his faith as a Catholic.
Biden’s sons made a full recovery and he remarried in 1977. “This woman literally saved my life,” he said, reaching out to Jill next to him.
The vice president went on to say that he “has a wonderful family. They are always there for me. But there is still something gigantic missing.”
Each year, Biden said, Jill makes a wreath to commemorate the family’s loss and they take flowers to the cemetery.
“Your relationship with your family will be like a bond of steel,” Biden told the survivors. “You’ll see the depth of a relationship you never knew could happen.”
Speaking to those who’d lost spouses, the vice president said, “You’re going to go through periods where you will feel guilty as hell” by starting a new relationship. But, he added, “Keep thinking about what your husband or wife would want you to do.”
Biden urged the survivors to have hope. “It can and will get better. There will come a day, I promise, when your thoughts of your son or daughter or husband or wife will bring a smile to your face before it brings a tear.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey