Throughout a lifetime in the public eye, President Joe Biden has always sought to maintain a close relationship with America’s men and women in uniform.
In 2022, he and first lady Jill Biden spent Thanksgiving with troops serving overseas. His late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, served with honors in Iraq. His memory has been evoked with regularity in the president’s commemorations of Memorial Day—which recognized the risks members of the military take—both during his administration and while serving as President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“The hurt can be overwhelming,” Biden said about the loss of his son, whom he believed got cancer from exposure to toxic burn pits while overseas, during his Memorial Day address last year. “But for so many of you—as is with Jill and me—the hurt is wrapped around the knowledge that your loved one was part of something bigger, bigger than any of us.
“They chose a life of purpose,” he continued. “It sounds corny, like a Memorial Day speech, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. They chose a life of purpose. They had a mission. And above all, they believed in duty, they believed in honor, they believed in their country.”
Vice President Joe Biden talks with Army Captain Beau Biden at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad on July 4, 2009. Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in the combat zones of Iraq.
Khalid Mohammed/AFP via Getty Images
The elder Biden, who was born in 1942, when the U.S. was in the throes of World War II, never serves in the military.
During the Vietnam War era, he received five student draft deferments, according to Selective Service System records that the then-vice presidential candidate released in 2008. He got the deferments as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware and later when he was a law student at Syracuse University, graduating in 1968.
Later that year, Biden—like Donald Trump, who had bone spurs in his heels—received a 1-Y classification following a medical exam. Examiners confirmed his history of asthma. The classification meant he could be drafted only in a national emergency.
Beau took a different path. His brother, Hunter, was discharged from the Naval Reserve as a public affairs officer for allegedly testing positive for cocaine use in 2014. Beau, however, served in Iraq—against his father’s wishes—for a year in 2008 as a member of the Delaware National Guard, including a seven-month deployment in a combat zone.
A member of the 261st Signal Brigade, Biden was awarded the Bronze Star for his service and was posthumously awarded both the Legion of Merit and the Delaware Conspicuous Service Cross, which is “awarded for heroism, meritorious service and outstanding achievement.”
Beau’s military service continued a long tradition of service in the Biden family, although the president has misstated specifics.
During a 2022 Delaware town hall for U.S. veterans, Biden told the crowd a story about his attempt to award a Purple Heart to his late uncle Frank Biden while vice president. The president said Frank refused the award because “others died” for the country—a sign of the selflessness of his generation.