BAGHDAD – Lt. Jill Ogues first learned the news from an intelligence report: Vice President Joe Biden was coming to Baghdad, and he was going to make an unannounced stop to meet Fort Lewis soldiers at a dining facility.
This called for action.
Ogues and two other lieutenants from Fort Lewis’ 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division arrived at the chow hall 15 minutes before Biden appeared and chose a table near the side entrance where the vice president entered. And when he arrived with entourage in tow, the officers had prime seats.
Their table was one of the first he visited at the dining facility Saturday. Biden asked the lieutenants about their jobs, their hometown and how long they had been in Iraq. He thanked them for their service and posed for photographs.
“It’s a thoughtful gesture – him coming here, spending time with us,” said Lt. Caitlin Conley, the leader of 4th Brigade’s military police platoon. “He’s got a busy schedule while he’s here. He’s got to meet with leaders and generals and guys like that, but it’s nice he made time for soldiers.”
The vice president spent about an hour in the chow hall, in essence making a large loop around the interior while talking with soldiers and flashing his trademark wide smile for photos.
Biden, whom President Barack Obama has tapped to be the administration’s point man on Iraq, was in Baghdad on a 24-hour visit amid a move by a government commission to disqualify more than 500 people for running in March’s parliamentary elections. The government says the candidates have ties to the Baath party and shouldn’t be allowed to run; Sunni politicians see the ruling as a move to disenfranchise the minority ethnic group.
Biden met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders on his visit. He stopped by the Raider Inn – run by the cooks of 4th Brigade – before returning to the United States. Security was tight: Service agents roamed the facility, and the vice president’s convoy included dozens of armored sport-utility vehicles.
Trailing Biden during his visit were the top American commanders in Baghdad, including Gen. Ray Odierno and Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the Fort Lewis commander serving as the Unites States’ second-in-command in Iraq.
Col. John Norris, the commander of 4th Brigade, stayed near Biden’s side. He thanked the vice president for his visit and told Biden his appearance at the memorial service on Nov. 10 for seven soldiers from Fort Lewis’ 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division “sent a powerful message to the nation.”
“His presence there meant a lot,” Norris said, “and his visit here means a lot to our soldiers.”
The crowd at the chow hall represented the realities of the Iraqi war: Perhaps only half of the diners were American service members. The rest were contractors, including cooks from South Asia, technicians from the United States and security guards from Uganda.
One linguist, a man from Baghdad who asked not to be named for fear of his safety, told Biden he was proud to be working for the American military and felt his efforts were helping rebuild his country.
After the 30-second conversation, the translator turned to someone standing nearby and asked who the visitor was. When he learned his identity, he let out a squeal.
“It is an honor!” he yelled, flashing a wide smile. “He is a very, very important man!”
Biden also made room for humor. Three soldiers from a transportation company based in Fort Stewart, Ga., were eating when the vice president walked by. One pretended not to see him.
“You look like a hard-nosed Republican,” Biden jabbed, which made the group erupt with laughter. “But hey, I’m pretty badass myself.”
Biden left the chow hall after about an hour and hammed it up with a platoon of soldiers from the 4th Brigade headquarters company’s personal security detail team. Four Strykers were parked in the gravel lot near the Raider Inn; its soldiers wore full battle kit and stood near the ramps of the 21-ton vehicles.
Their presence was essentially a show for Biden. They had been waiting inside the Strykers when he arrived, and they weren’t preparing to head out on a mission. But Pfc. Ryan Huggins relished the assignment.
“Usually we do this kind of thing for generals and other high-ranking officers,” said Huggins, a 23-year-old Nebraska native. “But to do this for the vice president? It’s a great honor.”
Biden went down the line, thanking each soldier for their service and making small talk. He spent a few extra seconds with Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins, the top enlisted soldier of 4th Brigade.
“Take care of my guys, sergeant major,” Biden said. “It can’t happen without you.”
He had a few last with Jacoby and the command of 4th Brigade. Biden then turned to the troops for last one message.
“The bad news,” he told them, “is that if you’re here long enough, you’ll probably see me again.”