Posted: Sept. 30, 2009
WHEN BEAU COMES MARCHING HOME
By Celia Cohen
The full vice presidential treatment was in effect when Delaware National Guard troops came back from a year in Iraq with a Biden among them.
Although the homecoming arena set up Wednesday in Dover was swarming with soldiers, this was a job for the Secret Service. The agents were ready for whatever -- Al Qaeda, Tea Party people or maybe someone choosing the wrong route to the post office.
With all of the roadblocks, detours and tented security checkpoints, it took about 15 minutes to circumnavigate from the corner of Loockerman Street and Legislative Avenue to the makeshift parade ground about a block away in front of Legislative Hall.
Never mind. It was a wonderful day, beneath a a sky that could not decide between clouds and sun, swirling like the kaleidoscope of emotion in the crowd of a thousand officials, fellow National Guard members, family, friends and other well-wishers who came to rejoice.
Almost all of the family members went to Fort Dix in New Jersey last week, the first stateside stop for the 261st Signal Brigade, so the edge and anticipation were not as sharp. It was more of a jubilant picnic -- just with snipers materializing atop Legislative Hall.
There was a little fellow running around, 21-month-old Matthew Richards, with a blue shirt that read "My dad wears combat boots in Iraq" on the front and "My mom wears combat boots in Afghanistan" on the back.
Both of his parents were soldiers newly home. Autumn Richards, his mother who had him by the hand, traveled to Dover from her base in Fort Bliss, Texas, just back herself from six months in Afghanistan. James Richards, his father, was with the 261st.
As impatience prodded order, the ceremony began about five minutes early. The moment built like low thunder, the drums and then the bagpipes of the Delaware state police sounding the advance of 108 troops on parade.
Their appearance unleashed a vast cheer, the one reserved exclusively from the first war until today and eternally onward for soldiers safe at home with their mission accomplished.
The 261st handled communications for the Iraq theater, a singular responsibility for a National Guard unit.
"Wow, what a glorious, glorious Delaware day. The 261st Signal Brigade has come home. All safely," said Major General Frank Vavala, who is in charge of the Delaware National Guard.
It was hard to say whether it was unusual or usual for Joe Biden to be present. It was uncommon to have the vice president there, but it was so familiar to have someone with so many years as a U.S. senator, and simply imperative for a father of a National Guardsman.
Biden did not speak long, about 10 minutes, in remarks that were a mix of appreciation for the troops and humility for the privilege of his rank that let him visit with the 261st in Iraq.
"I went to see our beloved son three times. You were home. I felt guilty," Biden told the families.
"As a Delawarean, I stand here steeped in pride. As an American, I am awed by the quality and significance of your service. As a parent, as a father, I can't tell you the feeling I have" -- his voice wavered -- "in welcoming home a son."
The ceremony lasted less than an hour, the returning troops standing in formation. The loudest applause seemed to go to Gov. Jack Markell, the Guard's commander in chief.
It was not for praising the soldiers as "our state's humble heroes and our nation's premier signal corps." It was for telling the families he knew they were thinking, "I wish these speakers would just hurry up, so I can take my soldier home."
The most evocative words belonged to Chaplain Ed Brandt in his invocation.
"It has been an incredible year. We have lived in sand with no surf, enjoyed ball games with no beer, had dinner with no dates," he said.
"Gracious God, we are glad to be home, and we are so thankful for this day. Be with us as we reintegrate to old jobs or in some cases, no jobs.
"Help us appreciate anew our families and loved ones. On this day, as we look to the future, our prayer is for swords to be beaten into plowshares and for that day of eternal peace. Lord, we are so glad to be home!"
Many soldiers were greeted by huge family contingents, probably none larger than the Bidens, welcoming home Beau Biden, the JAG captain, the attorney general, perhaps a Senate candidate.
There were Joe and Jill, and Joe's sister Valerie and brother Jimmy, and Beau's wife Hallie and his brother Hunter and assorted others. Joe and Jill left early, the vice president bound for a presidential meeting in the Situation Room. Beau Biden collected Natalie, his five-year-old daughter, in his arms and had little Hunter, his three-year-old son, astride his shoulders.
Kevin Smith, who spent close to 30 years on Joe Biden's Senate staff, was crying over Beau Biden's return. "He started out in a peach basket under a booth at the Delaware State Fair," Smith said.
Public life will intrude quickly on Beau Biden, who lost a quarter of his four-year term as attorney general to this deployment and has an election year bearing down on him with his father's old Senate seat beckoning.
There are decisions to be made. "Yeh," said Valerie Biden Owens, his aunt and the family's resident campaign manager, "but can I just cry today?"
It was time to leave. These were military families, and they streamed in file alongside Legislative Hall, a long and grateful parade marching toward tomorrow.