President Joe Biden spent his first Memorial Day as Commander-in-chief honoring honoring fallen service members and their families at a ceremony in his home state of Delaware – an event he has attended nearly every year for decades.
The day took on deep personal meaning for the president, who remembered his late son Beau on Sunday — the state’s former attorney general and a veteran who passed away from brain cancer six years ago to the day.
“If he were here, he would be here as well, paying his respects to all those who gave so much for our country, and particularly honoring the Gold Star families,” Biden said as he remembered his son.
Beau served in Delaware’s National Guard, attaining the rank of major and deployed to Iraq. While serving overseas, he was given permission to wear a uniform bearing a different last name so he would not receive special treatment. Beau passed away on May 30, 2015 at age 46 after battling an aggressive form of brain cancer.
“As many of you know this is a hard day for us. Six years ago today, Hunter lost his dad and I lost my son," Biden said. "If he were here, he would be here as well paying his respects to all those who gave so much for our country."
“Beau didn’t die in the line of duty, but he was serving a Delaware National Guard unit in Iraq for a year,” he added of his son. “That was one of the proudest things he did in his life.”
Biden spoke at the Delaware Memorial Bridge's Veteran's Memorial Park, which has a memorial wall bearing the names of approximately 15,000 people from Delaware and New Jersey who lost their lives serving in World War II and the Korean War.
Biden expressed the nation’s gratitude to the gathered families for their sacrifice, as well as recounting his own experience with loss.
"A lot of time passes, but you all know, better than I do or as well as I do, that the moment that we celebrate it is the toughest day of the year,” Biden told the crowd of Gold Star families, veterans and others paying their respects. “We’re honored, but it's a tough day that brings back everything.”
"That's why I can't thank you enough for your continued service to the country and your sons, your daughters, they live on in your hearts and in their children as well,” he added. “And we have to carry on without them, but I know how hard it is for you.”
“We will never forget,” Biden pledged. “They're the guardians of us, and we're the guardians of their legacy, inheritors of their mission and the living testament to their sacrifice that is not going to be in vain.”
“Thank you for allowing us to grieve together today,” the president told the crowd. “I know how much the loss hurts. I know the black hole that it leaves in the middle of your chest, that feels like you may get sucked into it and not come out.”
“And while I know nothing I can say to ease the pain, I just know that each year it gets a little bit easier,” he continued. “And I promise you the day will come when the mention of the name of your son or daughter, husband, wife — they will, in fact, bring not a tear to your eye, but a smile to your lips.”
“I hope that day comes sooner than later,” the president added.
Biden will attend a similar ceremony on Monday, the official observance of Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery, where he will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Though a tent was overhead, the cold wind whipped the rain onto the guests as they watched a lone military trumpeter play taps at a memorial to Delaware’s fallen troops. Biden appeared to pay the chill no mind, remaining for the entirety of the 75-minute ceremony and mouthing the words to the closing rendition of “God Bless America.” When it was time, he snapped a salute to the wreath laid at the memorial.
Biden had attended the ceremony nearly every year for decades, and it was at last year’s event when he emerged for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, spotted with a mask while laying a wreath.
Hours before Sunday’s ceremony, the president, first lady Jill Biden and other family members attended a memorial Mass for Beau Biden at their local church. After the service, the Bidens greeted well-wishers outside the church and, for the first time in more than a year, were able to receive warm hugs and handshakes at their home parish.
The Bidens walked to Beau’s grave, which is on the property of St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, and left flowers amid several American flags that had been placed on the well-manicured lawn next to the marker.
During Biden's speech, he talked about the card he carries with him that lists the number of service members killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Not an approximation or a rounded number," he said. "An accounting of every life laid down for our country over the 20 years of war."
On Sunday, that number read 7,036.
"Those names on that wall and every other wall and tombstone in America of veterans is the reason we are able to stand here. We can't kid ourselves about that," the president concluded. "So, I hope that the nation comes together. We are not Democrats or Republicans today; we are Americans. It's time to remind everyone who we are."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.