Listening and Learning with Dr. Jill Biden

Published in Military Spouse Magazine January 2020

To say Dr. Jill Biden is a busy lady would be an understatement. The wife of former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, Dr. Biden served as second lady from 2009-2017 during the Obama administration. She has been traveling nonstop since her husband announced his candidacy for president. However, Biden’s efforts go far beyond her husband’s campaign trail.

When we spoke in mid-December, Biden was a full-time professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She has since taken a leave. “I’ve been teaching up until last Thursday and just finished posting my grades, and now I’m out on the campaign trail trying to get Joe elected 24 hours a day, or so it seems,” Biden said. Traveling from one end of the country to the other, Biden is making a point to stop and speak with families. 

“I’ve been listening to what they’re concerned about and taking the message back to my husband, Joe.” 

But there is a special place in her heart for military families. As a military mother, she has seen the chaos, struggles and heartache of military life. She’s even written a children’s book, Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops. The book is based on her granddaughter Natalie’s experiences when she dealt with her father, Beau Biden’s, deployment to Iraq. Biden keeps a copy of the book with her, and she often gifts them to students, including military children.

However, well before Joe Biden’s vice presidency role, Biden was already volunteering in her home state of Delaware with Boots on the Ground, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting military spouses when their member was deployed. “If their heater was broken, we would find someone to go fix it for them. Those sorts of things.”

As the 2008 election approached, Michelle Obama asked Jill Biden, “If we’re elected, what is the one thing you want us to work on?” Biden responded quickly, “I want to work on military families.”

Obama agreed, and so began the foundation for Joining Forces. 

“When Michelle and I joined together, we went around the entire country and talked to military families – mothers, dads, spouses – and we looked at where the gaps were, and then we came up with this plan to help military families in three pillars: education, employment, and health and wellness.” 

Once Joining Forces was established, they began to partner with businesses and nonprofits for improvements in those three areas.

Biden knew there was a gap in the support military families were receiving outside of military installations. On a visit to Camp Victory in Iraq, she was being shown around by several generals when one stopped her and said, “I need to tell you about something that happened in my daughter’s class.” The general told Biden about a concert where the school played the song, “Ave Maria.” A young girl in the class burst into tears. The teacher ran over, asking what was the matter, and the young child responded, “That’s the song they played at my daddy’s funeral.” The teacher had no idea the child’s father had served in the military or that he had died.

As a teacher herself, Biden felt an inner obligation to alert more of the public, specifically teachers, about support for military families. “We have to let educators know about the children in their classrooms and how many military connected children there are.” She returned from that trip and immediately formed Operation Educate the Educators, a commitment by Joining Forces. 

Pillar 1:  Education

Operation Educate the Educators began working with teachers colleges all over the nation, creating new programs that would now be a part of the school’s curriculum to not only teach how to identify military associated students in the classroom, but also support them. 

“Even in my community college classroom, I always find out who is connected to the military. It’s important that the other students in my class know about their classmates’ experiences and what they have to contribute to our discussion because of those experiences.”

Pillar 2:  Employment

A hot topic on many military spouses’ minds, and one that Biden was quick to acknowledge, was spouse employment. She understands that many spouses move from base to base and not only have a hard time finding a job, but often have to wait for their credentials to get transferred. Sometimes they even have to get recertified. 

“We really began working with businesses to encourage the hiring of military spouses.”  The original goal was to encourage the private sector to hire 100,000 spouses and veterans. By the end of the Obama administration and the Joining Forces initiative, more than 1.5 million were hired or trained as a direct result of Joining Forces. Biden continued to focus on military spouse employment during her work with the Biden Foundation. “Most military spouses need or want to work, so we will continue to help spouses with employment opportunities.” 

Pillar 3:  Health and Wellness

Joining Forces went beyond education and spousal support. It also focused on military health and wellness. “Just yesterday, I visited a veteran’s center in Nevada just to look at how people here are supporting our veterans who still need help with PTSD and a lot of medical problems.” Biden wants to continue focusing on helping those who are serving, as well as those who have served and their families. 

“We’ve been in these wars for so many years, and when our son came back from Iraq, he said, ‘Mom, our military veterans and their families need help,’ and so both Joe and I are committed to helping our returning servicemen in the mental health area.”

Regardless of the upcoming election results, Biden is proud of her work with Joining Forces – which ended with the Obama administration. If her husband is elected, she plans to resurrect the initiative. She credits the success of Joining Forces during the Obama administration to one specific reason: She listened. 

“The strength of Joining Forces is the ability to bring organizations and leaders together. We will continue working with the community families and listen to what issues are the most pressing and what resources are needed. We can help fight for them. These three pillars will be our starting point, and we will continue from there.”

Passionate about helping military families persevere, Biden had a specific message to all those who serve and their loved ones who are often left behind, “We see you. We honor your service and your sacrifice, and we will do everything in our power to make sure you have the support you need to survive. Joe has always said that it is our most sacred obligation of our government, of all Americans, to support and do right by the men and women in our military.”

Jill Biden’s continued efforts to increase awareness for military families and garner public support demonstrate a passion that will become one of her greatest legacies. 

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