ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Sarah Palin was in Alaska today in part for a deployment ceremony. Her son, Track, is expected to deploy soon to Iraq. Palin is not the only political parent with a child in harm's way. No matter who wins the election in November, for the first time in decades, either the president, vice president, or both, will have children serving in the armed forces while the nation is at war.
NPR's JJ Sutherland has this story from the Pentagon.
JJ SUTHERLAND: When Alaska governor Sarah Palin was introduced as Senator John McCain's running mate, she introduced all five of her children.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Vice Presidential Nominee): On September 11th of last year, our son enlisted in the United States Army.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
SUTHERLAND: 19-year-old Track is Palin's oldest child.
Gov. PALIN: Track now serves in an infantry brigade. And on September 11th, Track will deploy to Iraq in the service of his country and…
SUTHERLAND: John McCain has two sons in the military, midshipman John McCain IV, now in his final year at the Naval Academy, and his youngest, Marine Lance Cpl. Jimmy McCain, who has already served a tour in Iraq.
McCain doesn't talk about his son's service, but at the Republican Convention, his wife, Cindy, spoke of her struggle as a mother watching her son go off to war.
Ms. CINDY McCAIN: The stakes were never more clear to me than the morning I watched my son Jimmy strap on his weapons and board a bus headed for harm's way.
SUTHERLAND: Reportedly, Cindy McCain had arranged to see her son off as his plane left for the Middle East, but her son told her not to come. The other Marines' mothers couldn't and he wanted no special treatment.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden's son, Beau, is a captain in the Delaware National Guard. He introduced his father at the Democratic convention.
Mr. BEAU BIDEN: My dad has always been there for me, my brother and my sister, every day. But because of other duties, it won't be possible for me to be here this fall to stand by him the way he stood by me.
SUTHERLAND: Beau Biden's unit reports for training in October. They expect to be in Iraq within a few months.
The three men have very different roles in the military. Corporal McCain was a grunt, just like all the other grunts in Anbar province. Pfc. Palin is in the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Captain Biden is the attorney general of Delaware, and he is expected to act as a trial counselor for his unit.
For security reasons, the military won't say exactly where in Iraq they will serve. But you ask Pentagon officials how they're going to be treated and you get the same answer, they'll be treated just like any other soldier or Marine, just how they want to be treated.
Retired Colonel James Currie teaches at the National Defense University. He says the military has to give them special treatment.
Retired Colonel JAMES CURRIE (Professor, National Defense University): It simply wouldn't be fair to other members of the unit for them not to give special treatment, and in fact, basically, to get them out of there.
SUTHERLAND: Presidential or vice presidential children, Currie says, make too tempting a target.
Ret. Col. CURRIE: Can you imagine the propaganda victory if al-Qaida or some organization over there were to injure or kill or, heaven forbid, capture the son of a president or a vice president, something like that? I cannot imagine what that would be.
SUTHERLAND: Prince Harry of England might be able to imagine it. He and his unit were pulled out of Afghanistan after his presence there became public and he became a target.
John Eisenhower, son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, certainly knows what that means.
Mr. JOHN EISENHOWER (Son of Dwight D. Eisenhower): My dad and I talked about it. I told him that I would not be captured. I would do myself in before I was captured. That was the agreement between us.
SUTHERLAND: Eisenhower served in the Korean War while his father was president. He eventually retired as a one-star general in the Army. But now, he says his father's decision to leave him in combat was a mistake.
Mr. EISENHOWER: The military career of a young guy is not that important. What somebody could do to the burdens the president must carry is just too much. It would have destroyed my military career if I had not gone to Korea, but I was not that important.
SUTHERLAND: It's a choice one other American president had to make. Four of Franklin Roosevelt's sons served in World War II. But the choice of leaving your children in harm's way, no matter how wrenching that choice may be, is one that will have to be made from January 20th.
JJ Sutherland, NPR News, the Pentagon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.