The remains of 30 American troops killed in the deadliest single incident of the decade-long Afghanistan war returned to U.S. soil Tuesday morning aboard two C-17 military cargo aircraft, along with the bodies of eight Afghan soldiers who died alongside them.
President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for a ceremony honoring the return of the fallen. The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and a host of other VIPs from the Defense Department would also be in attendance.
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, reaffirmed their decision to close the ceremony to news coverage and continued to withhold the identities of those killed in the Chinook helicopter crash early Saturday in the remote Tangi Valley in eastern Afghanistan.
Family members have revealed the names of some of those who died in the crash to reporters, but Pentagon officials declined to say why they have not followed suit. “We are not prepared at this time to release the names, that’s all I can tell you,” said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Defense Department ordinarily makes public the identities of all troops who are killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lapan said that policy remains in place. But most of those killed in the helicopter crash were commandos from the secretive Special Operations Forces, which usually crave anonymity in their work. Twenty-two of the commandos were Navy SEALs and three were from the Air Force. The other five U.S. casualties aboard were Army aviators.
The troops were on a mission to rescue other commandos on the ground who had been hunting a Taliban leader in the Tangi Valley but came under fire from insurgents, U.S. military officials have said. The crash is believed to have been caused by an insurgent firing a rocket-propelled grenade as the Chinook tried to land.
Eight Afghan soldiers were also aboard the helicopter. Because of the catastrophic nature of the crash, military officials said they were unable to make a preliminary identification of any of the bodies. The remains will be sorted out and identified at an Air Force mortuary at Dover. Afterward, the Afghans will be returned to their country for burial, Lapan said.
In addition to Panetta and Mullen, other Pentagon officials who will attend the “dignified transfer” ceremony at Dover include:
Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence; Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy; Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations; Air Force Under Secretary Erin Conaton; Gen. Philip Breedlove, vice chief of staff of the Air Force; Army Secretary John McHugh; Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army; Rick West, the master chief petty officer of the Navy; and James Roy, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.