Obama greets caskets of returning Americans
President makes midnight visit to honor 18 personnel slain in Afghanistan
Image: Barack Obama
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
President Barack Obama, center, Army Assistant Judge Advocate Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright, second from right, and Army Special Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Repass salute as soldiers carry the transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. Dale R. Griffin at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2 hours, 10 minutes ago
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. - U.S. President Barack Obama saw first hand the human cost of the Afghanistan war Thursday as he saluted the flag-draped caskets of 18 soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan this week.
After a midnight flight in his Marine One presidential helicopter, Obama landed in Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the largest U.S. military mortuary and main point of entry for service members killed abroad.
The previously unannounced visit came as Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency that has reached its fiercest level in eight years.
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Minutes before Obama's arrival, an Air Force C-17 transport aircraft landed in the base, carrying the bodies of eight Army soldiers killed by a roadside bomb and seven soldiers and three DEA agents killed in a helicopter crash.
A military chaplain accompanied Obama and other officials onboard and said a prayer over each casket before it was transferred out of the aircraft, military officials said.
Most of the event was closed to media and journalists were only allowed to see the transfer of the last casket.
In cold and blustery weather, Obama marched briskly in step with four officers to the aircraft. Attorney General Eric Holder, DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart and two other officials walked behind in a second rank.
They marched up the ramp, out of sight of the media. After a few moments they walked back down the ramp and stood in a line under the tail of the C-17.
Obama stood at attention and saluted as six soldiers carried the casket, bearing the body of Sgt. Dale Griffin of Indiana, off the plane and loaded it onto a waiting van.
The military calls the process a dignified transfer, not a ceremony, because there is nothing to celebrate. The cases are not labeled coffins, although they come off looking that way, enveloped in flags.
By 4:45 a.m., the president had touched back down on the South Lawn.
With at least 53 killed, October has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the unpopular eight-year war Obama inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Polls show Americans increasingly weary of the war, which analysts say will likely help define Obama's presidency. There is skepticism, including among his fellow Democrats who control the U.S. Congress, over sending more troops.
Obama has held a series of meetings with his war cabinet to review the new Afghan strategy he put in place in March and to consider a request by his top military commander in the field, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops to combat a resurgent Taliban.
He is set to meet again Friday with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the military services, the White House said.
Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Tuesday the decision-making process was "probably getting to the end" and a final decision could be expected in the coming weeks.
Critics, particularly among opposition Republicans, accuse Obama of being overly cautious and indecisive, but the White House has said a decision of such magnitude requires careful consideration.
Oct. 29: President Obama salutes the caskets of U.S. personnel who were killed this week in Afghanistan. NBC’s Chuck Todd reports.
The process has been complicated by an Afghan presidential election in August marred by widespread fraud in favor of incumbent president Hamid Karzai. A second round is due to be held on Nov. 7.
Underlining the fragility of the security situation even in the capital, Kabul, Taliban militants stormed a guest-house in Kabul Wednesday and killed five U.N. foreign staff.
About two-thirds of the 100,000 NATO-led forces are U.S. troops. More than 900 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon relaxed its ban on media coverage of returning U.S. war dead by allowing families to decide whether to allow photos and television footage of the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.
The ban had been imposed since the days of the 1991 Gulf War with some exceptions, including the return of Navy seamen killed during the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.
Bush imposed a stricter ban during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking criticism the federal government was hiding the human cost of its military operations.