- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2009

After he stood on a windswept tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in the middle of the night to watch 18 soldiers and U.S. drug enforcement agents killed in Afghanistan arrive home in flag-draped cases, President Obama, known for his soaring rhetorical skills, was speechless.

Though he politely thanked a couple of military aides for setting up the visit, after he boarded his Marine One helicopter, Mr. Obama rode back to the White House in subdued silence; neither the president nor anyone in the small group of officials who accompanied him said a word for the entire 40-minute flight home, the White House said.

On Thursday, few at the White House would recount details of the surprise pre-dawn trip to Delaware, where the president stood at attention, saluting as camouflage-clad soldiers in berets and white gloves carried their dead comrades off a giant Air Force C-17 transport plane. But Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs offered an insight into just what they saw while many Americans lay in bed, asleep.

“I don’t think you can go out there and not understand what you’re seeing and understand that — the sacrifice that our men and women are making,” the spokesman said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Gibbs said, who was also on the trip. “I think you get a real sense of gravity when you see the faces of those that are there to greet their loved ones. And these were recent, very recent deaths. You can see the genuine anguish on their faces. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by what you see.”

The visit to Dover, a massive air base where more than 5,000 soldiers killed in action in America’s more recent wars have passed through on their way to their final resting places across the country, delivered a stark reminder to the commander in chief about the human costs of war as he weighs the best way forward in Afghanistan.

For his part, Mr. Obama was circumspect when asked on Thursday afternoon about the visit.

“Well, obviously it was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day — not only our troops, but their families as well,” he told reporters.

“And obviously the burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts. And it is something that I think about each and every day. All right?” Mr. Obama said, abruptly ending the session with reporters.

The White House said the president had wanted to visit the Dover Air Force Base ever since his administration in January asked the Pentagon to end an 18-year blanket ban on press coverage of the events, known as “dignified transfers.”

“We began to put this into operation Tuesday night and made a final decision Wednesday at noon,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president chose to go to Dover now given the enormous blow to U.S. forces just this week, in a month where at least 55 U.S. troops have been killed, the highest monthly toll since the war began in 2001.

On Monday, a U.S. military helicopter crashed returning from the scene of a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan, killing seven servicemen and three Drug Enforcement Administration agents, all residents of the greater Washington area. On Tuesday, eight soldiers were killed when their personnel vehicles were struck by roadside bombs in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

It was those 18 dead Mr. Obama saw come home.

At 11:44 p.m., after Game 1 of the World Series had ended and many Americans headed to bed, the president left the White House residential quarters and boarded a helicopter on the South Lawn.

The official party included Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz; DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart; U.S. Army Assistant Judge Advocate Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright; U.S. Army Special Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Repass; and Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center Col. Robert Edmondson.

Mr. Obama, who for months has been pondering his war strategy in Afghanistan and whether to send as many as 40,000 additional combat troops there, landed at 12:34 a.m., his helicopter coming to a halt just behind the military transport plane that brought home the remains of the men killed Monday and Tuesday.

The president took a small motorcade to an on-base chapel, where he met with members of 14 families of the fallen. “He met with the families privately, each one individually,” said Maj. Carl Grusnick at Dover. “His manner was dignified, in the way you would expect from a commander in chief.”

Mr. Obama, dressed in a suit and overcoat, and the other officials then returned to the tarmac at 3:40 a.m., following a six-person “carry team.”

Four times, Mr. Obama marched up the ramp of the transport plane and bore witness as Maj. Richard S. Bach, an Air Force chaplain, offered a prayer over the remains. Afterward, he joined other officials standing at attention and either saluting or placing a hand over their heart. The officials stood stock-still during the silent transfer, as the Army carry team moved the flag-draped cases holding the bodies to a white mortuary van.

While Mr. Obama stood by for all of the transfers, just one family had agreed to allow the press to record the return of their son, Dale R. Griffin, an Army sergeant from Terre Haute, Ind.

As the president waited, the family arrived in a small bus. Six soldiers carried Sgt. Griffin’s remains down the ramp and into the waiting van. The president and military officials saluted throughout.

The transfer lasted about 15 minutes. A few minutes later, the helicopters were moving. The president was back in the air by 4:05 a.m., landing at 4:45 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House, while his wife and daughters slept.

He walked inside, alone.

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