Charles Dharapak/AP

Biden gets personal comforting families of fallen warriors

Vice president sympathizes with military survivors group, describes his own losses.

Vice President Joe Biden on Friday used Memorial Day weekend as an occasion to offer highly personalized comfort to an organization of survivors of U.S. military service casualties, recounting in detail his own struggle following the 1972 deaths of his first wife and daughter in an auto accident.

Speaking to the 18th annual Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp put on by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Biden said his own son, a veteran who recently spent a year in Iraq, “felt almost a little guilty because he came home whole.”

Biden then recalled for the TAPS crowd of several hundred at a hotel in Arlington, Va., the bleak phone call he received just before Christmas 1972, when he was a freshly elected Democratic senator from Delaware and was in Washington hiring staff. As soon as the call came, “I felt it in my bones that something bad had happened,” he said of learning that his wife, daughter and two sons, while out Christmas shopping, had been sideswiped by a tractor trailer in a crash that only his sons would survive.

A hush fell over the audience -- most wearing red TAPS T-shirts, some with photos of their deceased loved ones. But they burst into applause when Biden said, “I used to resent it when people would say, `I know how you feel’ because they have no idea of the black hole of feeling in your chest.”

Saying he was reluctant to speak of such matters in front of the press, Biden described of the anger he felt as he talked to God, saying he didn’t think he’d ever get over the loss. “No parent should be predeceased by their children,” he said. “Just when you think you will make it, you pass a field, or hear a tune on the radio, or look up at the night sky, and you feel the same as the moment you got the news. You say, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it.’ ” He said he could understand why some consider suicide.

But Biden told the military family members he relied on his extended family for support, particularly his mother, who assured him that his relationships with his remaining family members would be all the stronger. Eventually, Biden added, he began to accept calls from strangers, including a former governor of New Jersey, who’d experienced similar tragedies.

The vice president advised grieving relatives to keep a calendar and chart their feelings, noting the bad days eventually get further apart. He counseled them not to shy away from falling in love again -- as he did with second wife, Jill Biden, who was with him on the stage. He said to think of what their lost loved one would want them to do and see them as living on through their surviving children.

“You have one advantage -- you have that incredible thing called the military,” Biden said. “Only 1 percent have fought these wars, and even fewer have been through what you’ve been through. We owe you more than you can know.”

The four-day therapeutic and informational event put on by TAPS gathered spouses, parents and siblings of service men and women killed in recent wars, along with some 400 of their children, who were playing in nearby conference rooms. TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll referred to the organization as a patriotic “family we never wanted to be a part of.”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience that speaking to TAPS and visiting children of the fallen is the “highlight of my year,” and compared the group’s founding in 1994 to the 1986 nationwide anti-hunger project called Hands Across America.

“Most Americans have not had the life-altering experience of being handed a folded flag,” Dempsey said. “You are the face of the two wars of the past decade and before, and we will never forget your sacrifice.”

Biden commended Dempsey as a “tough guy who’s not here just because it’s his job. You can almost hear his heart breaking” when he comforts the families of wartime casualties.

The Veterans Affairs Department was represented at the event at booths showcasing its Office of Survivors Assistance and its National Cemetery Administration. Also displaying was the New York Life Foundation, the event’s title sponsor.

TAPS puts on some 30 events a year, according to Ami Neiberger-Miller, a public affairs officer, while also helping families navigate the federal bureaucracy. “The military is not a social services organization, so we help widows dealing with benefits and denials,” she said, and with other potentially challenging tasks such as changing the wording on a headstone, applying late for benefits if a Pentagon casualty officer has moved on, or securing benefits eligibility for a child of a deceased veteran who did not wed.