Somber ritual as slain soldiers are returned to U.S.

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:02 AM

IN DOVER, DEL. A white Boeing 747 carrying the six dead soldiers touched down after dusk Wednesday at Dover Air Force Base, about 9,000 miles from a remote place where a treacherous Afghan border policeman had gunned them down two days before. The plane's side hatch gaped open and a crew of airmen stood straight and somber, waiting for the proper moment to lower their deceased comrades to American soil. A chill wind blew.

The first three metal transfer cases - the military does not call them caskets - rested on a cargo lifter outside the hatch. Each case was draped with the Stars and Stripes, the flags drawn taut and cornered. At 7:39 p.m., someone pressed a button, and the cases eased slowly downward. Inside were the bodies of one soldier named Buddy, another named Barry, another named Jacob, making the final journey home to three small towns across America.

Waiting to greet the young men who had died for their country were an Air Force chaplain, a seven-member white-gloved carry guard, and an unusually large group of VIPs. The latter including several Pentagon and White House officials responsible for the war in Afghanistan.

Standing solemnly in three rows, heads bowed, were national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon; Antony Blinken, the top national security aide to Vice President Biden; Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy; and the man who invited them to make the trip to Dover, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gathering several yards behind on the tarmac: a clutch of mothers and fathers and brothers and one family friend, simultaneously grief-stricken and proud.

On this evening, the return would occur in two phases. The first was for families who had given permission to four journalists to observe the proceedings. The other was for relatives who requested privacy to welcome home the remains of Staff Sgt. Curtis A. Oakes of Athens, Ohio; Spec. Matthew W. Ramsey of Quartz Hill, Calif.; and Pfc. Austin G. Staggs of Senoia, Ga.

Such scenes have become familiar at Dover since April 2009, when the long-closed military ritual of welcoming home the dead was opened to the public, as long as relatives approve. As the death toll climbs for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the cargo planes land at Dover with greater frequency. They unload one body, two bodies, six bodies at a time, often in the dead of night, usually with only a handful of the living to witness the human cost of a long-running, faraway war.

As of Thursday, 466 U.S. troops had been killed this year while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, the military's name for the war in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org. That's by far the highest annual total since 2001, and about one third of the cumulative toll of more than 1,400.

Public opinion surveys show that most Americans now oppose the war.

The six soldiers flown back to Dover on Wednesday were all members of the same unit of the 101st Airborne Division: 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

All were killed Monday when an Afghan border police officer opened fire on their unit during a training mission in Nangarhar province near the Pakistani border. Although details of what happened remain uncertain, Afghan officials said that the assailant had been recruited into the border police two years ago but that somewhere along the line, he fell in with the Taliban.

The Taliban issued a statement praising the officer - who was killed in a subsequent shootout - for turning on the Americans who had been trying to train him.

The military refers to the ritual of bringing the fallen back to Dover as a "dignified transfer." An Air Force chaplain offers a brief prayer, but there are no speeches, no bugles, no guns fired into the air.

On Wednesday, the living saluted sharply as an Army carry guard lifted the first transfer case and gently slid it into a waiting white van. Inside was the body of Sgt. 1st Class Barry E. Jarvis, 36, of Tell City, Ind., an Ohio River town of about 8,000 people named for the legendary Swiss archer William Tell.

His wife, Tina, observed from the distance. "I miss Barry," she wrote in a message on his Facebook page.

Next was the transfer case for Pfc. Jacob A. Gassen, of Beaver Dam, Wis., population 15,000. A medic, Gassen had celebrated his 21st birthday in Afghanistan less than two weeks before he was killed.

"He was my little boy. I'm going to miss him badly," his father, Greg Gassen, told the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen. Friends from the Class of 2008 at Beaver Dam High School have already set up a scholarship fund in the soldier's memory.

The third transfer case held Pvt. Buddy W. McLain, 24, of Mexico, Maine, a mill town of 3,000 people. Among the family he leaves behind are his wife and high school sweetheart, Chelsea, and their 15-month-old son, Owen.

After the van shut its doors, it was escorted slowly down the flight line by a police SUV, its blue and red lights flashing.

The Army carry guard followed on foot, with the official party of dignitaries bringing up the rear. The procession continued in silence for about 200 yards, into the darkness. Ahead lay the mortuary.

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