WASHINGTON — The long and divisive war in Iraq is about to resonate with presidential candidates in a way not seen so far in the campaign: The sons of both vice presidential nominees are assigned to go there soon.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's eldest son, Track, will perform security duties for his brigade's top officers.
"He's just like any other infantry soldier here," said Army Col. Burt Thompson, who heads the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. "He tries to remain as anonymous as he possibly can."
Which is harder than it sounds. The British government decided earlier this year it had to pull Prince Harry from Afghanistan after news leaked he was fighting there. That sparked a debate about whether the children of powerful politicians are treated differently when they join the military.
When Sen. John McCain selected Track's mother to be his running mate, the Alaska governor's family moved into the international spotlight. She has made no secret that Track Palin and his unit are leaving soon for duty in Iraq, repeating the news during her acceptance speech this week at the Republican national convention. Track, in a dress suit, was in the audience.
This is not a first. Family members of candidates and presidents have served in the military during wartime. President Johnson's son-in-law, Charles S. Robb, for instance, served as a Marine officer in Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower was the last sitting president to have a son in a combat zone. John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower served during the Korean War. Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt each had four sons in the military during wartime.
And nearly a dozen young men and women — sons and daughters of members of Congress — have served in Iraq, although critics of U.S. military policy long have argued that too few of the people making the decisions have had family members serving in war zones at the time.
The presidential campaigns remain deeply divided over how to end the contentious war — an issue that had front-burner status during the primary season but has not been quite so prominent recently. The deployments of Track Palin and Beau Biden, son of Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, make the subject an intensely personal one, nevertheless, for their families.
Not only is it personal, it could come to seem tactical as well, since the candidates will be asked many times over the next two months how they would handle the war — and when they would pull the troops out.
"They're going to take a very keen interest in how that war is run," said retired Army brigadier general David Grange. "It will affect their decision-making. No doubt about it."
The dispatch of the candidate sons to Iraq also carries unavoidable political overtones. For the Democrats, Beau Biden's service could help reverse a weak spot, for example.
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"Republicans always seem to imply that Democrats are somehow unpatriotic or want to be easy on the terrorists," said James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy. "But I think that Biden's son demonstrates that you can disagree with a policy and still support doing your duty."
Beau Biden, who is Delaware's attorney general, is a captain in the Delaware National Guard and will work as a military lawyer in Iraq.
John McCain's son Jimmy, a Marine, returned earlier this year from Iraq. Another McCain son, Jack, is a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Palin's unit is believed to be headed to Diyala, among the most dangerous of Iraq's 18 provinces. It extends from the northeastern suburbs of Baghdad to the Iranian border. Diyala has proven to be difficult to control because it is heavily mixed with Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds.
Diyala was the fourth most violent of Iraq's provinces, averaging more than 3.5 attacks each day, according to figures from June. It has not been returned to Iraqi control and probably won't be before next year.
Citing security restrictions, the Army will not say where in Iraq Palin's or Biden's units are being sent. Both units are scheduled to be in Iraq for 12 months.
Track Palin and Beau Biden have received no special considerations, the Army said. Nor will they.
"Absolutely not," said Capt. John Atwell, Palin's company commander.
Lt. Col. Len Gratteri, a spokesman for the Delaware Guard, said the only time special status for Beau Biden is discussed at the Guard's headquarters in Wilmington is when the media calls to ask about him.
"He's a soldier," Gratteri said.
Palin's job appears to be riskier than Biden's.
Now 19, he enlisted last year and is assigned to the 1st Stryker Brigade's Delta company. That's in Palin's home state. The Army says his being posted there was luck of the draw.
In military parlance, Palin is a "dismount." He and other soldiers operate armored vehicles called Strykers. Their job is to ensure brigade commanders and their communications remain protected as they move around the country. The Stryker is an eight-wheeled truck that weighs 19 tons.
"They're the secret service for the brigade commander," said brigade spokesman Maj. Chris Hyde.
Gov. Palin said in her acceptance speech this week that her son's unit will deploy to Iraq on Thursday. A deployment ceremony for the brigade takes place at Fort Wainwright then, but the route to Iraq is not a direct one. It will move in stages with stops in Kuwait for equipment. The brigade will eventually be stationed in northern Iraq, Hyde said.
Biden a military lawyer
Beau Biden joined the Delaware Guard in 2003 and is now a captain. He's assigned to the 261st Signal Brigade as a military lawyer. He prosecutes offenses that can range from soldiers who are late for formation to courts-martial, said Gratteri, a spokesman for the Delaware Guard.
One hundred members of the 261st Signal Brigade are scheduled to leave Delaware in early October for Fort Bliss, Texas, where they will spend several weeks training before going to Iraq, Gratteri said.
Like any other soldier, Biden will carry a weapon. But his duties will be largely administrative, Gratteri said.
"The plan is not for him to be kicking down a door," he said.
The Secret Service provides protection to the children of the president and vice president.
The agency, however, has no record of providing protection to any past presidents' or vice presidents' children who were serving in an active war zone. The military and the administration would likely discuss if and how the Secret Service would provide protection for Biden or Palin, agency spokesman Eric Zahren said.
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