As the nation slept, President Obama received home the bodies of 18 U.S. military and law enforcement personnel killed Monday in Afghanistan, participating in a solemn and ceremonial process in which he prayed over each flag-draped “transfer case” and saluted as they were removed from the plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Mr. Obama, who met privately with some relatives of the fallen, joined the official party to greet the 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement agents and took part in process known as dignified transfer, where six-person teams of Army soldiers in black berets, white gloves and camouflage carried the bodies into the bases morgue.
As part of that process, Mr. Obama boarded the cargo plane, and with a chaplain, prayed for the fallen, the family, the country and the war effort.
“I think you get a real sense of gravity when you see the faces of those who are there to meet their loved ones,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “You see the anguish in their faces. It was hard not to be overwhelmed.”
In adherence to family wishes, a small group of reporters was permitted to watch just one of the transfers, that of Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., who died Monday along with seven other U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter when their armored vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in the Arghandab River Valley in southeast Afghanistan.
The president’s trip to Dover is his first since he lifted the 18-year-old ban on press coverage of the arrival of dead U.S. service men and women at Dover, where all U.S. casualties are processed before being returned to their families.
The final decision to make the trip was made Wednesday, after the president had expressed a desire to “pay the country’s respect for the sacrifice these men and women are making all over the globe,” Mr. Gibbs said.
The president and his aides flew by helicopter to Dover Air Force Base, landing at 12:34 a.m. about 50 yards behind the cargo plane holding the fallen personnel. Still wearing his topcoat, Mr. Obama was greeted by Col. Manson Morris, the 436th Airlift Wing commander. The president
then walked to a SUV that joined a motorcade that took him to an on-base chapel where he was to meet with family members of the fallen.
Mr. Obama, along with Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr., a few military officials and a few advisers, returned to the tarmac at 3:40 a.m., following the six-person carry team. They walked about 250 feet to the back of the C-17 cargo plane that transported the soldiers home and
ascended up the back ramp of the massive plane.
Mr. Obama and the accompanying officials then walked back down the ramp, where they stood in a single file line. The family then arrived by bus.
As the case carrying Sgt. Griffin’s body was carried off the back of the plane, the president and the other government and military officials saluted, until the transfer case was placed on a white mortuary van nearby. As the van drove off, Mr. Obama and the others saluted again.
The trip was unannounced and unexpected. It comes one month into a review by the president of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The length of the review has prompted critics to say Mr. Obama is harming the morale of the U.S. military fighting in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama’s national security credentials and support for the military have been a matter of dispute going back to the election.
The 18 dead were killed in two separate incidents Monday. In addition to the eight killed in the Arghandab River Valley, seven soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency agents were killed when their Chinook helicopter crashed near the northwestern village of Darreh-ye-bum.
The deaths helped make October the deadliest month so far in Afghanistan for the U.S. military since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama, who ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in March, bringing the total current number to 68,000 troops, is considering another increase based on a request from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
Mr. Obama was met at the base by Mr. Holder, 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 Col. Robert
Edmondson of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.
At 4:05 a.m. Thursday, Mr. Obama departed Dover, along with the three officials who accompanied him — Denis McDonough, national security council chief of staff; Mr. Gibbs; and trip director Marvin Nicholson.
Mr. Gibbs said the president remained silent for the entire flight back to Washington.
He landed at the White House at 4:45 a.m.