Joe Biden painted a vivid scene for the 400 people packed into a college meeting hall. A four-star general had asked the then-vice president to travel to Kunar province in Afghanistan, a dangerous foray into “godforsaken country,” to recognize the remarkable heroism of a Navy captain.
Some told him it was too risky, but Biden said he brushed off their concerns. “We can lose a vice president,” he said. “We can’t lose many more of these kids. Not a joke.”
The Navy captain, Biden recalled Friday night, had rappelled down a 60-foot ravine under fire and retrieved the body of an American comrade, carrying him on his back. Now the general wanted Biden to pin a Silver Star on the American hero who, despite his bravery, felt like a failure.
“He said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the … thing!’ ” Biden said, his jaw clenched and his voice rising to a shout. “‘Do not pin it on me, Sir! Please, Sir. Do not do that! He died. He died!'”
The room was silent.
“This is the G-d’s truth,” Biden had said as he told the story. “My word as a Biden.”
Except almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect. Based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders and Biden campaign officials, it appears as though the former vice president has jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened.
Biden visited Kunar province in 2008 as a U.S. senator, not as vice president. The service member who performed the celebrated rescue that Biden described was a 20-year-old Army specialist, not a much older Navy captain. And that soldier, Kyle J. White, never had a Silver Star, or any other medal, pinned on him by Biden. At a White House ceremony six years after Biden’s visit, White stood at attention as President Barack Obama placed a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, around his neck.
The upshot: In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.
One element of Biden’s story is rooted in an actual event: The vice president did pin a medal on a heartbroken soldier, Army Staff Sgt. Chad Workman, who didn’t believe he deserved the award.
“In Afghanistan, he was moved by Staff Sgt. Workman’s valor and selflessness, which is emblematic of the duty and sacrifice of the 9/11 generation of veterans who have given so much across countless deployments,” Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
Bates described “honoring and recognizing those who have served our nation in uniform” as one of Biden’s “most solemn obligations” during his long career. And he added that Biden has “devoted himself wholeheartedly on a multitude of overseas trips and in domestic interactions” to keeping that charge.
Biden, 76, has struggled during his presidential campaign with gaffes and misstatements that hark back to his earlier political troubles and have put a spotlight on his age. In 1987, Biden dropped out of the presidential race amid charges that he had plagiarized the speeches of a British politician and others.
One big question facing candidates and voters more than 30 years later is whether President Donald Trump’s routine falsehoods have changed the standards by which other presidential aspirants, including Biden, should be judged.
Biden has used war stories to celebrate military sacrifice and attack Trump’s version of patriotism, built around ferocity and firepower. The former vice president, like Trump, never served in the military. But Biden’s son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, deployed to Iraq as an Army lawyer in 2008, and the candidate ends almost all of his speeches with the refrain: “May G-d protect our troops.”
Embedded in Biden’s medal story are the touchstones of his long career: foreign policy expertise, patriotism and perseverance through grief.
Biden’s first public recounting of his trip to Kunar province, made shortly after his return in early 2008, was largely true, but not nearly as emotionally fraught as the versions he would later tell on the campaign trail. In 2008, then-Sen. Biden, along with Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) flew by helicopter to Forward Operating Base Naray, not far from Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. There, they watched as Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez presented a Bronze Star for valor to Spec. Miles Foltz, who braved heavy Taliban fire to rescue a wounded soldier. Spec. Tommy Alford had been manning his machine gun atop a hill when a Taliban bullet sliced through his jaw and neck. Foltz pulled Alford behind a nearby rock, stanched his bleeding and then took over his friend’s weapon. Two soldiers were killed during the ambush, but Alford survived and even returned to the unit a few months later to finish his combat tour.
“It was pretty awesome. . . . He saved a lot of lives.” said retired Col. Chris Kolenda, who was Foltz’s commander in Afghanistan.
For Foltz, the memory of Biden’s visit and the Bronze Star remain bittersweet. “I wrote about it for an English class when I was going through college,” he said. “I can’t remember how I phrased it, but it’s like the medal helps hold down all the guilt for all the things I didn’t do that day.”
Biden returned home from his trip in 2008 worried that the United States was losing the war and moved by the battlefield award ceremony. “I know it sounds a little corny,” he said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, “but I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”
Biden seemed to stop telling the story until the summer of 2016, when the presidential campaign was in full swing and Trump was surging to the top of the polls. In July of that year, he told it at a World War II ceremony in Australia. In this version, Foltz, a young soldier, had been replaced by the apocryphal and much older Navy captain who in Biden’s telling “climbed down about 200 feet” into a ravine and retrieved his wounded friend who died. The Bronze Star was upgraded to a Silver Star.
This time, Biden said he was the one who pinned the medal on the officer, not the general. “Sir, with all due respect, I do not want it,” Biden recalled the officer saying.
Months later, as the angry and divisive 2016 presidential campaign kicked into high gear, Biden’s story of the medal ceremony grew more harrowing and less accurate. He told it at an October rally for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in response to comments from Trump suggesting that some troops weren’t mentally strong enough to handle the rigors of combat. “Where … is he from?” Biden asked of Trump that day in Florida.
This time, Biden shifted the setting from Afghanistan to Iraq. Instead of rappelling down a ravine, an Army captain pulled a dead soldier out of a burning Humvee.
“He died. He died, Mr. Vice President,” Biden recalled the officer saying. “I don’t want the medal.”
Biden jabbed at the air with his index finger and yelled, “How many nights does that kid go to sleep seeing that image in his head, dealing with it?”
The Pentagon has no record of an Army captain receiving a Silver Star in Iraq during the time period Biden describes.
Three weeks later, stumping for Jason Kander, an Afghan War veteran running for the Senate in Missouri, Biden told both the Iraq and Afghanistan versions back to back in a single speech. First it was the Navy captain who rappelled down the ravine in Kunar. “He died. He died. I don’t deserve it,” Biden quoted the medal recipient as saying. Then he segued to the Army officer, the burning Humvee and Iraq. “This is the G-d’s truth,” Biden said. “As I approached him in a full formation . . . ‘Sir,’ he whispered to me, ‘Sir, please don’t. Please don’t pin that on me. He died, Sir. He died. I didn’t do my job. He died.'”
Then, on Friday, came New Hampshire. The setting was a town hall meeting about health care. Someone asked a question about mental health and Biden started talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and the heavy toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He pulled his daily schedule from the pocket of his blue blazer, an American flag pin affixed to its lapel. For the past 13 years, Biden’s rundown has included a daily tally of the dead and wounded from the war zones.
“I call every morning to the Defense Department – not a joke – to learn exactly how many women and men have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he told the crowd. “Nothing bothers me more than when someone says approximately 6,000 died. No, it is 6,883 as of this morning.”
Then Biden told the latest, and perhaps most inaccurate, version his Afghanistan story.
“I’ve been in an out of Afghanistan and Iraq over 30 times,” he said. (His campaign later clarified that the correct number is 21.) He talked about Kunar province, the Navy captain – “Navy, Navy” he repeated for emphasis – the deep ravine, the dead friend and the moment of reckoning when Biden pinned the medal on the officer’s uniform.
The version of Biden’s story that’s true – and just as heart-rending – is one he rarely tells. The setting was not Kunar province, but Wardak, just southwest of Kabul. The medal recipient was Workman, 35, who had run into a burning vehicle to save his dying friend. By the time Workman had pried open the door and plunged into the flames, it was too late.
“I never pulled him out because he was melting,” Workman recalled in a phone interview earlier this week from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
Workman’s company commander told him that the vice president was going to pin a Bronze Star on him for his heroism. “I tried to get out of going,” recalled Workman, who has since been promoted to first sergeant. “I didn’t want that medal.” Nevertheless on Jan. 11, 2011, a cold, gray day, Workman stood at attention as Biden pinned the medal to his chest. The moment is memorialized in a White House photo and in a 2016 interview that Biden did with National Geographic.
Here’s how Biden remembered it: “You see the look on his face – he says, ‘Sir, I don’t want it. I don’t want it. He died. He died.'”
Workman’s version is the same, but with one added detail. He recalled Biden meeting his gaze. Workman told the vice president that he didn’t want the medal.
“I know you don’t,” Biden replied softly.
Eight years later, Workman still remembers how Biden looked at him.
“He has that look where his eyes can see into your eyes,” Workman said. “I felt like he really understood.”