Jill Biden visits the North Country as part of her Joining Forces initiative

First Lady Jill Biden takes part in a roundtable discussion with local leaders to talk about employment opportunities for military spouses, part of her Joining Forces initiative. (Watertown Daily Times — Jonathon Wheeler)

FORT DRUM — Rosalinda White, who has been at Fort Drum since 2017, got a chance to speak with first lady Jill Biden during her visit to the Army post as part of her Joining Forces initiative.

“It’s great to see her at Fort Drum, we truly appreciate it,” White said.

White said she wanted to speak with the first lady about the Exceptional Family Member Program, which is available for families who may have additional medical or educational needs.

White said Biden “really wanted to hear (their) issues.”

“We were greatly appreciative of that,” she said.

First Lady Jill Biden meets children and goes over their “Hearts and Crafts,” which will be brought back to the White House. (Watertown Daily Times — Jonathon Wheeler)

She is believed to be the first sitting first lady to visit Fort Drum, although she did attend a welcome ceremony in 2010 with then-Vice President Joe Biden.

“It’s really nice for her to come visit us and get that true Fort Drum experience,” White said of Biden visiting during the winter.

Biden spoke with military spouses in addition to leaders in the community to discuss employment opportunities for family of service members.

“Coming here to Fort Drum, even in the dead of winter, it is my privilege and an honor,” she said.

The military spousal unemployment rate is currently about 22%.

She landed on post around 12:40 p.m. and her final stop ended around 4 p.m.

After she departed Air Force Two, she was greeted by Maj. Gen. Gregory Anderson, commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum; Luzane Anderson, the spouse of the commanding general; Command Sgt. Maj. Nema Mobarakzadeh; Kandice Mobarakzadeh, spouse of the command sergeant major; Col. James Zacchino; and Maria Zacchino, the spouse of Col. Zacchino.

In the first of a three-stop trip, Biden met with about 88 families at the USO Heritage Center.

At the beginning of her speech, Biden thanked the garrison and the 10th Mountain Division leadership team for what she called “their warm welcome.”

Biden said she will take the comments she receives from the families back to the White House, whether they are positive or negative.

“We will only be able to maintain a strong voluntary force, if you don’t have to choose between love of country and love of your family,” she said to the families.

Nathaniel Reyes had the first lady sign his sweatshirt so that he could prove to his friends that he was going to meet Biden. Nathaniel, who plays for the modified Watertown Cyclones at Case Middle School, said he mainly spoke with the first lady about his upcoming game.

“I’m very happy for the opportunity,” he said.

He said that he cherishes every moment he gets to spend with his parents, as both are in the military.

“It’s different than having parents that work normal jobs,” he said. “When I get the chance to hang out with them, I take the chances.”

In a roundtable discussion, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said they have heard a lot about child care.

“It’s a major challenge, so we’re always looking for new ideas,” she said.

Two young sisters, Tinah and Sadie Yingling, said that their parents also spoke with the first lady about child care.

Biden said she gets asked a lot about child care, not just at Fort Drum, but across the country.

“We have to do a better job getting child care for our families,” she said. “More places should have child care facilities. We have to move forward on this issue, and Joe understands that and knows that.”

She said that she has heard from a teacher about how a portion of the teacher’s paycheck goes into retirement, but that the teacher isn’t there long enough to collect retirement, and so the teacher never sees the money.

“You can make sure that tonight when I go home I’m going to say, ‘Joe, this makes no sense, look at these spouses, these teachers who are working,’ so it’s in his ear,” Biden said. “I hope you know we’re going to continue to work for all of you.”

Chantee Collins, who is an active-duty military spouse of 13 years, and also serves as the transition specialist for the Fort Drum USO Transition Program, said that when she talks with spouses about building careers, some of the challenges include employers not wanting to hire them due to them potentially leaving the area, finding jobs that aren’t transferrable, and finding remote employment.

Amanda Root, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County in Watertown, said that she would rather have an “amazing” employee for a couple of years than an “OK employee” for 5 to 10 years.

The USO Transition Program helps spouses find employment, help with a resume, or interview coaching.

While speaking with families, Mrs. Biden said she heard from Fort Drum families that they wished they had a job.

“We are working for them, all these different agencies are working for them,” Biden said.

In the third and final stop of Biden’s Fort Drum trip, she visited the South Riva Ridge Child Development Center.

While on the visit, Mrs. Biden spent time with the children going over their “Hearts and Crafts,” Valentine’s Day activities which will be brought over to the White House.

In the room, about 20 children between the ages of 3 and 5 were excited to meet Biden.

One child asked how President Joe Biden is doing.

“Joe’s doing fine!” Biden said.

Biden spent time at tables speaking with the children and seeing what they were working on, including one child giving the first lady a card.


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