President Obama had made this exact trip before, flying in secret from the White House to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to stand on the tarmac and salute the dead. He was a new president back then, in the fall of 2009, and he was weighing a decision to send more U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan. He traveled to Dover because he wanted to witness the consequences of war firsthand.
Almost two years later, after so many decisions and so many consequences, Obama arrived at Dover again Tuesday afternoon. Nothing about his presidency felt new anymore; he looked tired, solemn and gray as he stepped onto the tarmac. Since his last trip, 874 more Americans have died in Afghanistan, and Obama has signed 874 handwritten condolence letters. The war is fully his now. This time, he went to Dover to greet the charred and dismembered remains of Americans he had ordered to Afghanistan himself.
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There were 30 of them — including 22 Navy SEALs — who died last week when their helicopter was hit by a rocket in the deadliest single incident in the history of the war. Obama and others went to Dover to watch the transfer of their remains, which unfolded with a ritual exactness made familiar by a decade-long war: Each transportation case was draped with a flag, prayed over by a chaplain and carried out of the belly of a cargo plane by six troops who wore military fatigues and white gloves.
But for those who attended, nothing about this transfer felt routine. More than 75 family members of the victims traveled to Delaware from across the country, even though the crash was so violent that none of the victims have been formally identified. Leaders from every branch of the military saluted the cases of mingled remains on the tarmac. Obama and his staff canceled a talk on fuel efficiency in Springfield, Va., left behind the developing economic disaster and made hurried plans to go to Dover, recognizing that the event marked a definitive moment not only in the war but also in Obama’s presidency.
Here were remains of troops who died as part of Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, even as he begins to execute plans for a withdrawal.
Here were Navy SEALs, teammates of the men who killed Osama bin Laden in May — a unit that provided Obama with one of his most triumphant moments and, on Tuesday, one of his most devastating.
Obama arrived at Dover with his staff in four helicopters, leaving from Fort McNair in the late morning and flying 45 minutes to Delaware. He landed a few minutes after noon, rode down the tarmac in a motorcade and then walked 100 yards to greet the remains.
The remains arrived at Dover in two C-17s, flying first from Afghanistan to Germany, and then from Germany to Delaware. The troops aboard had died when their Chinook helicopter crashed during a rescue mission in the remote Tangi Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Now they were grouped together in transportation cases instead of separated into individual cases because, a Dover official said, “the crash was so horrific and the state of remains such that there was no easy way to see this was this person or this was that person.”