WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Her son has been home from Iraq for nearly three years now, but tears still well in Jill Biden's eyes when she recalls the Christmas Eve dinner the family had to have without him.
"We all would pretend that nothing was wrong," the wife of Vice President Biden says, sitting in the sunroom of their official residence. "But just looking down the table: There were 25 of us there, and just not seeing Beau. ..."
That was one of the hardest moments during a difficult year when Beau Biden's Delaware National Guard unit was deployed to Camp Victory in Baghdad - difficult both for her and for his daughter, Natalie, then 4.
Now Jill Biden, with Natalie's assistance, has written a children's book designed to help military kids whose parents are on dangerous duty abroad and non-military families who want to understand what deployment is like for the children left behind. Don't Forget, God Bless Our Troops (Simon & Schuster, $16.99), illustrated by Raúl Colón, is being published Tuesday.
It is a political year, and Biden is a regular presence on the campaign trail by her husband's side. She defends him against the caricature of a gaffe-prone pol - "Joe is Joe," she says in an interview - and sounds open to the idea if he decides to make a third presidential bid in 2016.
But she has produced a deliberately non-political book, a low-key account of Natalie's year while her father, a major in the Army National Guard and Delaware's attorney general, was in Iraq.
"This is so kids don't feel alone" when they are scared or sad about their mother or father's absence, says Biden, an English professor who calls herself "a military mom." "They'll see that other children are having the same exact feelings."
For non-military families, she says, "Americans can learn what this experience is like" and how they can help.
Before writing the book, she told her granddaughter she needed advice on what to tell the little girl of a friend whose husband was being deployed. What should she know?
"Does Daddy really have to go?" the book begins. The mother replies, "Daddy is a soldier." The story tracks key events of the year and the ways Natalie and her family cope with his absence. Before making the final yank to pull out her first tooth, they wait until her father can watch via Skype.
When her younger brother begins to cry for his dad while they are playing with their Army action figures, she holds her GI Joe in front of her face and, in a deep faux-father voice, urges him: "Don't cry, Hunter! Be a big, strong boy."
"Be brave, Natalie," is a refrain repeated again and again.
'Don't forget, Nana'
Natalie chose the illustrator, looking at children's books that had been drawn by several prospective artists. She colored the picture of an American flag for the frontispiece.
The title of the book comes from an exchange one night when Biden had tucked Natalie and Hunter into bed and helped them say their prayers. She was tiptoeing out of the bedroom when Natalie added: "Don't forget, Nana; God bless our troops."
Biden recently counted the campaigns she has been a part of since marrying her husband almost 35 years ago, when he was a senator from Delaware and a widower with two young sons - Beau, then 8, and Hunter, 7. (Biden's first wife and their daughter had been killed in a highway accident.)
Thirteen campaigns, she calculates, including those of both husband and son.
Joe Biden's 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination ended the night of the Iowa caucuses after he finished a distant fifth. Months later, on a day he had taken his wife to the dentist to have a root canal, Barack Obama called and offered him the vice presidential slot.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and strategist David Axelrod flew to Delaware to meet with him.
"Jill Biden and Beau Biden picked us up at the airport, and the thing immediately evident to me was this powerful relationship between them - how important family was," recalls Axelrod, who was meeting them for the first time. "They dropped us off to see Sen. Biden, and Joe Biden gave Beau Biden a kiss and said, 'I'll be by later and I want to see the kids.' "
Since the election, Jill Biden has continued to teach English, working full time at Northern Virginia Community College and known as "Dr. B." to her students. Some of them are unaware of her husband's office, she says. "They're working; they're raising children; they're going to school," she says. "They don't watch a lot of TV."
Biden, who turned 61 Sunday, also juggles a lot of roles. Last week, she was enmeshed in final preparations for the weekend wedding of their daughter, Ashley. The reception was at the Bidens' home in Wilmington, and her oven was on the fritz. ("I was just upstairs e-mailing my credit card number" to get it fixed for the caterer, she says as the interview begins.)
She has long avoided the Washington social scene, living in Delaware while her husband commuted to the Senate via Amtrak. She seems as disciplined and discreet as her husband is voluble. She calls his tendency to speak candidly an asset, albeit one that can create complications. Last month, his unscripted comments on NBC's Meet the Press pushed President Obama to announce his support for same-sex marriage earlier than he had planned.
"That's what I've always loved about him," she says. "He just says what he wants. I know a lot of times that has gotten him in a little trouble, but on the other hand I do think that people appreciate that he gives them the straight story."
Does she ever urge him to temper his words? "Maybe I would say, 'Joe, do you think you ought to just say it this way?' "
And what if he wants to make another bid for the White House in 2016?
"I've learned through many, many, many elections that you just take it one step at a time," she says. "Sometimes when we've folded our tents and gone, I'll say, 'Joe, never again; we're never doing this again.'
"Then I wanted him to run the last time for president, because I wanted to be out of that war in Iraq and I thought Joe was the best person to do it. But then it didn't work out that way, but then it did work out. You know, things happen for a reason."
Shoveling the driveway
The biggest challenge of her current role: meeting with military families.
She and Michelle Obama sponsor an initiative called Joining Forces, in support of the families of service members. She has met with thousands of families at bases from California to New Hampshire and visits wounded veterans about once a month. Her proceeds from the book are being contributed to the USO to support the education of military children.
"I have met with families that have maybe not the greatest outcome in that their son or daughter has lost a limb or is dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or, of course worst of all, has been killed in the war," she says. "This is going to be something for years to come that they'll have to deal with."
The book notes gestures that comforted Natalie and her family. After a snowstorm, a friend shoveled the driveway. Their church listed her father and others deployed in the weekly bulletin, asking for prayers. Her teacher showed the class a picture of his National Guard unit and talked about its service.
For Natalie, his deployment is over but not forgotten.
After Biden sat down with her to talk, Natalie told her mother that the conversation with her grandmother had made her feel sad "because I know how that little girl is going to feel."
On Memorial Day last year, Beau Biden, now 43, took his daughter to watch the ceremonies on the Capitol steps. He looked down; she was crying.
"Tears of sadness and pride at the same time," he says.