Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, served in Iraq with the Army National Guard
joe biden
Joe Biden

A tearful Joe Biden said Wednesday that it was still hard for him to visit cemeteries without the memory of his late son, Beau Biden, weighing on his mind.

The president, 78, touched on Beau's legacy while speaking with a group of reporters after visiting Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery, where fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

Biden went to Arlington immediately after he announced the U.S. would fully withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — 20 years after the terrorist attacks that sparked America's longest war.

"I have trouble these days ever showing up at a cemetery not thinking of my son Beau, who proudly insisted on putting on that uniform and going with his unit to Iraq and giving up his spot as attorney general in the state of Delaware because he thought it was the right thing to do," Biden said, standing in the rain after observing memorials at the cemetery.

Beau was Delaware's attorney general from 2007 until 2015 and was deployed with the Army National Guard for a year in Iraq, from 2008 until 2009. 

He received a Bronze Star Medal during his tour and delegated his day-to-day duties as attorney general while serving in the Middle East.

"I'm the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone," Biden said on Wednesday while announcing his decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, which the Trump administration had hoped to accomplish by May. (Conservatives quickly criticized Biden's planned withdrawal, arguing it would only create more risk.)

joe biden
Joe Biden
| Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
joe biden
Joe Biden
| Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46 — a profound loss the president has reflected on often in speeches and conversations with reporters. He is buried at the Catholic church St. Joseph in Greenville, Delaware, the Biden family's home state.

Biden has said his son's death was the primary reason he didn't run for president in 2016.

"Look, dealing with the loss of Beau, any parent listening who's lost a child, knows that you can't — it doesn't follow schedules of primaries and caucuses and contributors. Everybody grieves at a different pace," the elder Biden said at the time.

Before he was inaugurated as the 46th commander-in-chief in January, he told supporters in Delaware: "I only have one regret: He's not here."

As the president was sworn in, a man in uniform was photographed next to Beau's grave in Delaware. And after arriving in the White House, Biden put up a photo of Beau behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

joe and beau biden in 2009
Beau (left) and Joe Biden in 2009
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/Reuters
Beau and Joe Biden
Beau Biden (left) and Joe Biden in 2008
| Credit: Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty

Beau and Biden's younger son, Hunter Biden, survived the 1972 car crash that killed the president's first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, and their infant daughter, Naomi.

Biden has since referred to Hunter, 51, as his "heart" and Beau as his "soul."

The president campaigned in large part on his empathetic style and familiarity with grief, which his administration has worked to highlight amid a pandemic that has killed more than half a million people in the U.S. in the last year.

"People don't care what you know until they know that you care," the president's sister, Valerie Biden Owens, told PEOPLE in November. "And because Joe has tasted tragedy as well as triumph, as he has walked the walk, people respond to him." 

"There's comfort in knowing that somebody else gets it," Owens said.