Second Ladies in Combat Zones

By Robert Farley

Posted on July 8, 2021

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In several recent speeches to members of the military, President Joe Biden has sprinkled in a curious piece of trivia about his wife, Jill, saying he thinks she is the only second lady to visit a war zone. She isn’t.

Jill Biden accompanied then-Vice President Biden on a visit to Baghdad over the July 4 holiday in 2010. Second ladies Lynne Cheney visited Iraq in 2008, and Karen Pence visited there in 2019.

Biden’s spousal boast came most recently on July 2 in a naturalization ceremony with essential workers and military service members.

“I was telling our new citizens, in the other room before we came in, that one of my most — I don’t know how to say it — fulfilling moments was, as vice president, when I went over to Saddam Hussein’s god-awful, gaudy palace,” Biden said. “And there were, I think, 167 men and women in uniform standing in that palace. As my wife who — I think, I’m not sure of this — may be the only first lady or second lady to go into a war zone — an active war zone. She was with me, and we both stood there as I was able to swear in every one of those military officers as U.S. citizens.”

Biden made a similar comment in remarks to U.S. Air Force personnel and families stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom on June 9.

“I had the great honor of being in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq well over 27, 28 times,” Biden said. “I think Jill is the only second lady in American history who has gone into a war zone — into Baghdad with me as well.”

And he also mentioned it when speaking to service members and their families at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, on May 28.

“We’ve traveled all over,” Biden said. “Jill has traveled all over with me and her own visits to service members in Iraq. I think she’s the only second lady ever to go into the middle of a war zone, because she wanted to be there and see you.”

As we said, Jill Biden did accompany her husband, then-Vice President Biden, to visit troops in Baghdad over the July 4 holiday in 2010. According to press accounts, Jill Biden “met with members of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, and other deployed servicemembers and civilians at Camp Liberty” in Baghdad, and attended a July 4 barbecue celebration.

We couldn’t find any government definition of a “war zone.” But President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order in January 1991 that designated the Arabian Peninsula area, including all of Iraq, a “combat zone,” and it retains that designation to this day.

According to figures kept by iCasualties.org, there were 62 U.S. military fatalities connected to the war in Iraq in 2010, including four in July, the month the Bidens visited.

But Jill Biden was not the first second lady, nor the last, to visit American troops in Iraq.

During a 10-day trip to the Middle East in March 2008, then-Vice President Dick Cheney — accompanied by his wife, Lynne, and daughter, Liz — made surprise stops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney, second lady Lynne Cheney and daughter, Liz, deplane in Baghdad on March 17, 2008, greeted by Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of Multi-National Forces Iraq. White House photo/David Bohrer

According to press reports, the Cheneys landed at Baghdad International Airport and then flew by helicopter to the “heavily secured Green Zone for talks with U.S. military and diplomatic officials and the Iraqi prime minister.”

According to an Associated Press report, “Cheney and his wife, Lynne, slept in a trailer set up for VIPs at the air base about 40 miles northwest of Baghdad, then had breakfast with some of the 20,000 U.S. troops on the base, which supplies food, fuel, bullets and other items — from toilet paper to military hardware — to all operations in Iraq.”

“Noise from mortar and artillery shells fired from the base interrupted sleep during the pre-dawn hours Monday, but base officials said later the shelling was routine — used to keep pressure on ground miles off base where insurgents have been active before,” the story states.

There were 314 U.S. military casualties in Iraq that year, as well as 155 in Afghanistan, where the Cheneys also stopped. (Lynne Cheney also traveled with her husband to Afghanistan in December 2004 and 2005.)

Second lady Karen Pence also visited troops in Iraq with then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2019 (a year that saw 12 U.S. military casualties in Iraq).

And while she was not in a designated combat zone, former second lady Pat Nixon experienced what may have been the hairiest situation for a second lady when the motorcade she was traveling in with her husband, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, was attacked by protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958. One press account at the time called it the “most violent attack ever perpetrated on a high American official while on foreign soil.” Video shows the car holding the Nixons being punched and pelted with rocks.

Pat Nixon also holds the distinction of being the first first lady to visit a combat zone when she visited South Vietnam in July 1969.

Since then, several first ladies have traveled to combat zones to visit American troops. Most recently, Melania Trump accompanied then-President Donald Trump on a surprise visit to Iraq in December 2018. Former first lady Michelle Obama and late night talk show host Conan O’Brien went to the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in November 2015 to talk with and entertain the troops. And former first lady Laura Bush visited troops in Afghanistan twice, in March 2005 and again in June 2008.

All of those areas are designated combat zones by the IRS for tax purposes. According to the IRS, “The term ‘combat zone(s)’ is a general term used on IRS.gov and includes all of the following hostile areas where military may serve: actual combat areas, direct combat support areas, and qualified hazardous duty areas.”

Of course, there was also Hillary Clinton’s trip to Bosnia in March 1996.

In a speech in March 2008 as a presidential candidate, Clinton famously — and wrongly — recalled “landing under sniper fire.” But as we wrote at the time, Clinton failed to mention that the war had officially ended three months before she visited, and that she came with her daughter, who was 16 at the time, and two celebrities as part of a goodwill tour. CBS News footage later revealed she arrived calmly with Chelsea in tow, and Clinton said she “misspoke” about the incident.

President Biden’s comments, as we said, focused on second ladies. And he couched all of his statements about Jill Biden being the only second lady to visit a war zone with the disclaimer “I think.” Biden even added on July 2, “I’m not sure of this.” Given that he has repeated the claim several times, and that Lynne Cheney visited Iraq and Afghanistan two years earlier, this is a tale he should drop from the repertoire.

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