JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Virginia — President Joe Biden knows what it’s like to have a loved one in the military, he told children of service members Monday.

The president’s late son, Beau, who served as a lawyer in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, deployed to Iraq for a year beginning in 2008.

“It was hard to look at that empty seat at the dinner table every night, particularly in the holidays,” Biden said. “And for our granddaughters and grandson — they were the same age as many of you here today — it was even harder not to have their dad around on Christmas morning.”

He continued: “So I want to tell you what I told them. You have to keep brave. You have to be brave. Even when your mommies and daddies are far away, they are so proud of you, and I’m so proud of you as your president.”

The president gave his remarks as part of a gift-wrapping event for Toys for Tots, a Marine Reserve-run program that helps Santa collect, wrap and distribute toys to economically disadvantaged children. Now celebrating its 75th year, Toys for Tots has distributed toys to more than 281 million children, according to its website.

In recent decades, it has become a holiday tradition for first ladies and sometimes presidents to attend gift-wrapping events for Toys for Tots.

Biden noted that the organization collected 22 million toys for more than 8 million children in 2021, “giving Santa a run for his money.”

“But unlike Santa, you don’t wear big red suits,” he said. “You don’t travel the world in just one night. Instead, you wear dress blues and Army greens.”

Sitting in front of Biden’s podium in a gymnasium at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall were a few dozen children of service members, dressed in their finest holiday attire. And one child of a Marine got to introduce the president.

Jill Biden introduced Samara Donahue — who is 10 but told Marine Corps Times that she will be 11 in a week — and noted that the girl hopes to become president once she is old enough.

“To all the families out there who are going through difficult times, know this: We haven’t forgotten you, we care about you and we look forward to bringing the joy of Christmas to you through Toys for Tots,” Donahue said, seldom looking down at her notes. “And to my fellow military families: We are proud of you, and we are grateful for the sacrifices you make each and every day, and you are in our thoughts and prayers always.”

Donahue’s presidential platform is ambitious: Fielding a question from Marine Corps Times about what she wants to get done as president, she replied, “A lot of things.”

Jill Biden told the children in attendance, “Military kids like you give our country so much. You support your parents through moves and deployments, and you sometimes help take care of the family members who came home with maybe illnesses or injuries. And you help out neighbors when they need it — just like you’re going to do today.”

After the speeches, the president and first lady wrapped some presents with the kids.

The event was part of Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, which offers support and resources to families of military members and veterans, as well as their caregivers and survivors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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