WASHINGTON — President Biden spent six grueling months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center more than 30 years ago, battling two brain aneurysms. In 2015, he was at the hospital again as his son, a major in the National Guard, lost his fight against brain cancer.
On Friday, Mr. Biden returned once again to the sprawling military medical facility where troops with some of the most severe battlefield injuries are treated and rehabilitated — this time for visits with wounded warriors as the nation’s commander in chief. Mr. Biden’s visit to the hospital — and his private conversations with patients, their doctors and their families — is a rite of passage for presidents. And less than two weeks into his presidency, the short trip from the White House offered the new occupant of the Oval Office a reminder of the costs of war, and the consequences of the decisions that he may be called upon to make.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at Walter Reed,” Mr. Biden said as he left the White House for the visit. “They’re great Americans. They’re great people.”
The president’s public grief over his son’s death made the visit to the hospital an especially poignant one. Beau Biden was a major in the Delaware National Guard and was deployed to Iraq as a lawyer for a year during his time as Delaware’s attorney general.
The younger Biden died at the end of May in 2015 after fighting cancer for nearly two years. His father cited the emotional toll of his son’s death as one of the primary reasons he chose not to run for the presidency in 2016. He referred to the personal tragedy as he met with the leaders of the hospital.
“You’ve done a great deal for my family,” Mr. Biden said during a part of the presidential visit captured by cameras. “My son, Beau, after a year in Iraq, came back with glioblastoma, you took care of him in his final days, with great grace and dignity.”
Mr. Biden also mentioned the time he himself, then a senator from Delaware, was a patient at the hospital in the 1980s, recovering from two brain aneurysms that threatened to cut short his political career.
The president noted that he had often visited the hospital during his eight years as vice president, a time, he noted, when wars around the globe sent many more injured men and women there.
“As vice president, I’d come here, my whole family, we’d spend every Christmas Day, here all day,” he said. Noting the reduction in combat around the world, he added: “The good news is there’s not many people here today. There were a lot back then.”
As a presidential candidate and before that as vice president, Mr. Biden expressed deep reservations about the use of military force around the world. On the campaign trail, he promised to “end the forever wars,” a phrase he used to describe the decades-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Introducing Lloyd J. Austin III as his nominee for secretary of defense last month, Mr. Biden said the retired general shared his views about the need to avoid war.
“We need his firsthand knowledge of the immeasurable cost of war and the burden it places on our service members and their families to help bring to an end the forever wars and ensure that the use of force is the last tool in our toolbox, the last tool resorted to to protect our national security, not the first,” Mr. Biden said.
The president has said he feels connected to the men and women who are in the military, in part because of his own son’s military service. And in his new role, he is sure to be confronted with decisions that will put troops in harm’s way.
Mr. Biden visited with five amputees who were retired from military service. He also inspected a converted basketball gym at the hospital that had been transformed into a coronavirus vaccine site.
Mr. Biden’s predecessor made several visits to wounded troops at Walter Reed. But the most searing image of former President Donald J. Trump at the hospital was his visit for treatment after being diagnosed with Covid-19 in the waning months of his term.
In addition to releasing a short video from inside the hospital while he was ill, Mr. Trump also demanded a brief ride in his motorcade past supporters who were rallying on his behalf outside the hospital, a trip that was heavily criticized by medical experts who said Mr. Trump needlessly risked spreading the disease to his security detail.
Mr. Biden’s visit on Friday was less dramatic. He landed in the Marine One helicopter after a short flight from the South Lawn of the White House and returned less than two hours later.