DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware — Standing in the pre-dawn darkness, President Barack Obama saw the real cost of the war in Afghanistan: The Americans who return in flag-covered cases while much of their nation sleeps in peace.
In a midnight dash to this Delaware base, where U.S. forces killed overseas come home, Obama honored the return of 18 fallen Americans Thursday. All were killed in Afghanistan this week, a brutal stretch that turned October into the most deadly month for U.S. troops since the war began.
The dramatic image of a president on the tarmac was a portrait not witnessed in years. Former President George W. Bush spent lots of time with grieving military families but never went to Dover to meet the remains coming off the cargo plane. Obama did so with the weight of knowing he may soon send more troops off to war.
For all the talk of his potential troop increase — maybe 40,000, maybe some other large figure — Obama got a grim reminder of the number that counts: one.
His name was Dale R. Griffin, an Army sergeant from Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the last fallen soldier to come before Obama. And his remains were the only ones to be honored in full view of the media with the permission of his family. An 18-year ban on such coverage was lifted this year under Obama’s watch.
The president led a team of officials onto the gray C-17 cargo plane carrying Griffin, and then back off, where they stood for several minutes in a line of honor.
It was not quite 4 a.m. The sky was black and a yellowish light came from poles flanking the flight. The only sounds were a whirring power unit on the plane and the clicking of cameras. A blue vehicle carrying members of Griffin’s family pulled up.
The president saluted as six soldiers in camouflage and black berets carried Griffin’s remains into a waiting white 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.
On a clear fall night, the president zipped to Dover in about 40 minutes. He immediately spoke privately in a chapel with all the family members.
The solemn process of transferring remains of 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency agents unfolded in four separate movements. Obama took part in all of them. A chaplain offered prayers for the fallen, the crews that brought them home, the families who lost a loved one, and a nation embroiled in war.
By 4:45 a.m., the president had touched back down on the South Lawn, where even an active White House was sleepy.
He walked inside, alone.
A president of two inherited wars, Obama is winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq, but the troubled war in Afghanistan is only widening. It has become the dominant foreign policy change of his early presidency. The stability of Afghanistan remains in doubt while the support of the American people is waning.
At least 55 U.S. forces have been killed in October. That’s the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban.
Obama is faced with a crucial moment: How to keep al-Qaida terrorists from taking root again in Afghanistan without sinking more American lives and money into a war that isn’t working. He is in the midst of an intense review of his war strategy. Aides say he is weeks away from making an announcement.
The president apparently wanted to go to Dover now given the enormous blow to U.S. forces just this week.
On Monday, a U.S. military helicopter crashed returning from the scene of a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan, killing 10 Americans including three DEA agents. In a separate crash, four more U.S. troops were killed when two helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan. On Tuesday, eight soldiers were killed when their personnel vehicles was struck by roadside bombs in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
Obama has upped the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan to 68,000 troops and is considering sending a large addition next year, but fewer than the 40,000 troops requested by his commander there, U.S. officials tell The Associated Press. He holds his next war council meeting with the Joints Chiefs of Staff on Friday.
Bush once said that he felt the appropriate way to show his respect was to meet with family members in private.
The lifting of the ban on media coverage of bodies returning to Dover was done to keep the human cost of war from being shielded from the public.
Obama saw it directly.