This story was first published in the Fayetteville Observer.

FORT BRAGG — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden landed at Fort Bragg on Monday evening, thanking service members and their families ahead of Thanksgiving.

Shortly after disembarking Air Force One at a hangar on Fort Bragg just before 6 p.m., the president said in brief remarks that the couple knows “how hard it is” to be in a military family. Their son Beau Biden served in the Delaware National Guard as a major, Jill Biden said.

She said the couple appreciates what it’s like to see an empty seat at the holiday table, which is why they wanted to have dinner with the service members and Fort Bragg families.

“We’re so grateful,” the first lady said to the service members seated at dozens of linen-draped dining tables inside an airplane hangar. “Joe and I feel like you’re family to us.”

The president thanked the service members and their families.

“This is the finest military the world has ever seen,” he said.

With aprons adorned with the presidential seal, the Bidens dished out servings of mashed potatoes and stuffing to accompany the turkey, ham and other Thanksgiving fare prepared by the Robert Irvine Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2014 to support veterans and veteran causes by celebrity chef Robert Irvine. Air Force One sat just outside the open hangar in plain view of the diners.

Once the buffet line was cleared, the Bidens, still wearing face masks, removed their plastic serving gloves to mingle with the crowd. The president and first lady posed for dozens of photographs with attendees and chatted with scores of enlisted soldiers and officers.

Maj. Kimberly Bannister, one of five soldiers from the 44th Medical Brigade selected to attend the dinner, said the presidential visit was welcomed.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to feel supported, and for the younger soldiers and junior enlisted and their families to be able to feel the support from the commander in chief,” she said. Bannister’s been in the military for 16 years and plans to spend the holiday around Fort Bragg with her sister. This was her second time being in the presence of Jill Biden. In 2013, Bannister was assigned to an intensive care unit in Landstuhl, Germany, when Mrs. Biden visited with her husband who was then vice president.

Lt. Endureth Culanag said she was excited for the visit.

“This is my first time to meet a current president,” she said.

Culanag, who has served in the Army since 2010, said her father made one request when he heard the president was coming.

“My dad said I have to take a picture,” she said.

A Fort Bragg spokesman said 250 families were invited to attend Monday’s dinner with the meal being dished out not only by the president and first lady, but also Gov. Roy Cooper, Fort Bragg commanders and state and local politicians.

Soldiers invited to attend the event were chosen from each of Fort Bragg’s commands, including the U.S. Forces Command, Army Reserve Command, Army Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command.

Two days ago the Dixon family learned they’d have an important task for the visit — introducing the president and first lady as they enter the hangar to serve the troops.

1st Sgt. Justin Dixon, his wife Tawni Dixon and the couple’s 16-month-old son Cameron are Fort Bragg’s 2020 Family of the Year.

“That’s [my husband’s] commander in chief, and not a lot of people get to meet the president as a normal civilian or spouse,” Tawni Dixon said. She said they’ll show their son pictures when he is older to understand the significance.

Like Culanag, this was Justin Dixon’s first time seeing a president in person, too.

He said Biden’s visit sends a message.

“It shows a sense of caring, and I would use the word ‘genuine,’” he said.

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