With President Obama on hand to mourn privately, the remains of 30 U.S. troops killed this weekend in the single bloodiest day of the Afghanistan War were returned to American soil at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Tuesday.
Accompanied by his top military team and an Air Force colonel from the base, the commander in chief visited two C-17s that transported the remains of the fallen troops — 22 Navy SEALs, five Army crewmen and three airmen — who were killed in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday when their helicopter was struck in an attack by Taliban rebels.
Mr. Obama spent 70 minutes visiting with about 250 family members and comrades of the fallen troops before going to pay his respects aboard each plane, the White House said.
He and his team then lined up outside of the planes and saluted as the remains of the U.S. troops, along with seven Afghan troops and a translator, were carried off the aircraft in transport cases draped with 30 American flags and eight Afghan flags.
The Pentagon has not identified the fallen Americans, but some of their families have come forward and spoken, and they described men who had dreamed of serving their country, many of them growing up determined to become part of the elite Navy SEALs.
One of the dead was Aaron Vaughn, a 30-year-old father of two from Virginia Beach, who met his wife, Kimberly, when she was a Washington Redskins cheerleader on a USO tour in Guam. He had aspired to a military career since childhood. After Sept. 11, he told his parents he wanted to become a SEAL.
“He felt, and so did the other members of his team, that the very existence of our republic is at stake,” his father, Billy Vaughn, told NBC’s “Today.” “Because of that, Aaron was willing to give his life.”
Jason Workman, 32, of Blanding, Utah, also cited Sept. 11 as his motive for aspiring to join the special operations forces, childhood friend Tate Bennett told the Deseret News. He completed his Mormon mission to Brazil and Philadelphia, attended college, then joined the Navy with the specific goal of becoming a SEAL.
“Not making it just wasn’t an option,” Mr. Bennett said of his friend, who leaves behind a wife and 21-month-old son.
For the past few days, cable news shows have aired photos of the slain Americans and interviews with their families, which hearkened back to the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when lists of the dead were staples of news coverage.
In recent years, as President George W. Bush’s presidency faded and the Iraq War wound down, coverage of fallen troops also slackened.
Other changes also were made. Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama ordered the Pentagon to review a nearly 2-decade-old military policy that prevented press coverage of remains being returned to Dover. In February 2009, the Defense Department scrapped the policy and gave families of fallen troops the option of allowing press coverage.
Tuesday’s arrival, however, was closed to reporters and photographers. Pentagon officials said 19 of the 30 families had objected to press coverage.
Van Williams, a spokesman for the base’s mortuary affairs operation said Saturday’s crash was so horrific that bodies were not able to be identified easily. Consequently, the remains were transported together rather than in the customary single container for each service member, making it impossible for any of the families to give their individual consent.
Mr. Williams said the remains will be identified through DNA, dental records and fingerprints.
The president made no public remarks in Delaware, but spoke of the tragic incident in a Monday afternoon address on the economy, calling it a “stark reminder of the risks that our men and women in uniform take every single day on behalf of their country.”
“Day after day, night after night, they carry out missions like this in the face of enemy fire and grave danger,” Mr. Obama said. “These men and women put their lives on the line for the values that bind us together as a nation.”
In late 2009. Mr. Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan after arguing that the conflict had been neglected. Under an agreement with the Afghan government, U.S. forces have started to draw down with an eye toward transitioning full control to local forces by 2014.
Tuesday’s somber visit marked the president’s second trip to Dover to honor casualties of the decade-old war.
Mr. Obama had been slated to visit a moving company in suburban Virginia on Tuesday and announce new energy standards, but he canceled that event early in the day and instead had industry leaders meet with the president at the White House.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.