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.
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.”
Obama and other officials boarded both planes to pay their respects while the chaplain prayed over the cases — 20 on one plane and 18 on the other; 30 draped with American flags and eight with Afghan flags. Then, case by case, the remains were carried from the plane into seven vans, which drove to a mortuary on the base where experts planned to spend three days identifying the victims using DNA, dental records and fingerprints.
Before the transfer was completed, Obama met in a nearby community room with family members of the victims. He spoke with them in private for more than an hour with no prepared remarks, walking around the room and shaking hands. He has said that this is what he considers the most difficult task for any president: to tour a room of grieving people and offer both his gratitude and his condolences.
Each step of Tuesday’s trip mirrored Obama’s first visit to Dover, even if so much else about his presidency has changed in the 22 months since. Back in October 2009, Obama flew to Delaware in the middle of the night to view the arriving cases of 18 Americans who had died in Afghanistan. He walked into the belly of the C-17. He listened to the chaplain’s prayer. He stood in formation. He saluted. He met with families of the victims.
That trip was part of Obama’s effort to better understand what it meant to be a commander in chief as he debated sending more troops to Afghanistan. He also assembled 25 religious leaders to converse with him about the morality of combat, read books about what went wrong in Vietnam, and researched opinions on war by Winston Churchill, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Reinhold Niebuhr.
But it was the trip to Dover that stuck with him most of all. When Obama finally decided in December 2009 to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he referenced that night.
“I see firsthand the terrible wages of war,” he said. “I do not make this decision lightly.”
One decision — and its consequences — has shaped so much for Obama and the country in the nearly two years since. Bin Laden is dead; the United States faces a record debt, partly because of two expensive wars; Republicans and Democrats are historically divided; a presidential election will soon render its verdict on Obama based in part on that one choice.
Another consequence came Tuesday: a second trip to Dover, and more cases of remains waiting on the tarmac.