Biden Family’s Military Ties May Influence Approach to Policy in White House

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Joe Biden at ceremony naming Delaware National Guard headquarters for his son, Beau
Then-Vice President Joe Biden rests his hand on a display after the Delaware National Guard unveiled new signs naming its headquarters after his son, the former state attorney general and National Guard Maj. Beau Biden on Memorial Day 2016 in New Castle, Delaware. Beau Biden died of brain cancer at age 46. (Suchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal via AP)

As the U.S. military awaits its new commander in chief, experts predict that the White House under Joe Biden will cut defense spending, encourage more social diversity in the ranks, and position himself as an ally of veterans and military families.

The president-elect never served in the military, but he has experienced the worry and stress that military families suffer watching loved ones go off to war.

His son Beau, who deployed to Iraq in 2008 as a major with the Delaware National Guard, returned home safely but died in 2015 from a brain cancer that Biden believes was caused from his son's exposure to burn pits.

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Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser on international security for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the loss Biden experienced will resonate on some level with senior leaders, service members and military families.

"He does have this connection with the military. One son died, and that counts for something," Cancian said. "I don't think it counts for quite as much as many politicians think it does, but it does count for something."

Biden's other son, Hunter, briefly served in the Navy Reserve before being discharged in 2014 after testing positive for cocaine, shortly after taking a position as a public affairs officer in a reserve unit based in Norfolk, Virginia.

Jason Dempsey, a former Army infantry officer who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, said the president-elect's connection to the military will be strengthened by the work his wife Jill did with Michelle Obama on Joining Forces, a national initiative launched in 2011 to provide wellness, education and employment support for veterans and their families.

"Jill Biden has already spent eight years as second lady, and a key part of that was being a partner of Michelle Obama and standing up Joining Forces," said Dempsey, who is an adjunct senior fellow for the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. "So, she has all that experience under her belt, and what will be interesting is now she is going to be the first lady."

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses and believe they are connected to burn pit exposure may see some support from a Biden White House, Dempsey said.

Biden has said he believes his son's death from stage 4 glioblastoma was linked to "exposure to burn pits" and has promoted a plan that includes "expanding the list of presumptive conditions to include exposure to burn pits or other environmental toxins," as well as investing $300 million to better understand the impact of toxic exposure and traumatic brain injury.

Despite research in this area, more than 200,000 veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other bases throughout the Middle East have reported cancers, respiratory illnesses or neurological health problems to the Department of Veterans Affairs; many of their claims continue to be denied.

"I think Biden is very smart to look at the burn pit issue because that is an issue that resonates with not only the current generation, the post-9/11 generation, but it also resonates with your Vietnam-era [veterans] that had to go through Agent Orange," Dempsey said.

Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide the U.S. military used to clear leaves and vegetation during the Vietnam War. It wasn't until 1991 that Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, which linked certain diseases to exposure to the defoliant and entitled veterans to benefits for related illnesses. Those include various forms of cancer, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, according to a report from Propublica.org.

"I think it's awesome that we have someone who will say, 'Hey, let's do what the federal government should be doing, which is investigating the causes of these problems, mitigate them and assure that there is appropriate health care at the end,'" Dempsey said. "People are ready for maybe a move toward the actual work of policy, and I do think the burn pits is a great example of that."

But Biden, a Democrat, will likely take executive actions that won't endear him to the military, Cancian said.

"His problem with the military is going to be twofold," Cancian said. "He is going to be cutting the budget to some degree, and that always squeezes some benefits, some programs, so it's a little uphill when you are cutting an organization's budget to make them like you."

The approach will be a shift from President Donald Trump's support for expanded defense spending, which increased his support among Republican lawmakers and veterans groups.

While Cancian doesn't expect dramatic funding cuts, "If I had to guess, I would say on the order of $20 to $30 billion in constant dollar terms by the end of the administration."

The Biden White House will likely argue that it is "investing those savings in other elements of national security," such as beefing up the State Department, Cancian said.

Dempsey, however, countered that Biden is also not likely "going to divert DoD money to a border wall," referring to the Trump administration's decisions to redirect billions in defense funding to beef up the barriers on the southwestern border.

The other place Biden is going to "cause some discomfort in the military services is the social agenda," Cancian said.

Biden will likely overturn the Trump administration's policy prohibiting most transgender individuals from entering the military, he said, adding that there will be more of an emphasis on promoting diversity in the ranks.

"There will be transgenders, a lot of diversity, a lot of emphasis on women and people of color," Cancian said. "Independently, I think each one of those is fine. I think when you put them all together, for some in the military, it is going to feel like an attack on the culture.

"There are people that will argue that the problem isn't just letting transgender serve ... it's the whole military culture is wrong and needs to be redefined to be less warrior-oriented ... and that is the part that will make people uncomfortable," he said.

To Dempsey, the military, much like the public, is looking for a steady hand to develop U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

"They want to see someone who creates an actual strategy, whether you agree with it or not," said Dempsey, who added that many Americans have grown weary of Trump's practice of "lobbing verbal taunts at America's enemies and allies."

Biden made a "personal commitment" to the military in his recent Veterans Day message.

"We learned what it really means to be part of a military family the year that Beau deployed to Iraq with his National Guard unit. We prayed every night and morning for his safety, and we missed him at every family gathering or when tucking his children in at night. It was hard," he wrote. "For many years, I have said that we as a nation have many obligations, but we have only one truly sacred obligation: to prepare and equip our troops we send into harm's way, and to care for them and their families when they return home."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: Biden Suspects Toxic Exposure in Iraq Killed His Son. He Has a Plan for Ill Veterans

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