August 8, 2011
President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday to attend the return of the bodies of 30 U.S. servicemen killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Saturday. It was the deadliest day in the history of the decade-long war.
Obama’s motorcade left the White House at 11:32 a.m., and arrived at Ft. McNair at 11:45 a.m. Four helicopters carrying the president, staff and reporters left five minutes later. The helicopters landed at Dover Air Force Base at 12:30 p.m.
The dead servicemen included 22 Navy SEALs. Most were members of SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to find Osama Bin Laden. None of those involved in the Bin Laden raid were among the dead Saturday, U.S. officials have said.
The remains were returned to Dover in “unidentified” statuses until they are positively indentified by the Armed Forces Mortuary Affairs Office.
The Chinook helicopter crashed in the remote Tangi valley of Eastern Afghanistan. U.S. officials have said it was probably caused by insurgents firing a rocket-propelled grenade.
The president had not announced publicly that he would visit Dover. On Tuesday morning, Obama canceled a previously scheduled trip to Interstate Moving Services in Springfield, Va., where he had planned to talk about new fuel efficiency standards for work trucks, buses, and other heavy duty vehicles, according to his schedule.
The military has not identified the dead publicly. But in cases where families have been informed, some have talked to the media.
Upon arrival at Dover, the President motorcaded down the tarmac to where two C-17s containing the remains of the fallen servicemen were located. The President was escorted to the first plane by Col. Camerer. He boarded the plane with his military aide and spent time on board paying his respects. Escorted again by Col. Camerer, the President walked the 100 yards to the second C-17, boarded it with his military aide, and spent time on board paying his respects.
Afterwards, the President motorcaded to a building on base where approximately 250 family members and fellow servicemen and women of the fallen had gathered. He spent approximately 70 minutes meeting informally with family members, offering his condolences for their loss and his deep gratitude for their sacrifice and service.
Van Williams, the public affairs chief for the Dover Air Force base’s mortuary affairs operations, said the helicopter crash “was so horrific” that the remains of the servicemen were not able to be easily identified. Once the remains arrive at Dover, they will be identified by the mortuary team through DNA, dental records and fingerprints.
“The crash they were in 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,” Williams said. The bodies, he added, were loaded into the plane “all together” in the transportation cases, rather than in the usual single container for each service member.
Williams said at least three family members for each serviceman were invited to attend Tuesday’s ceremony, meaning at least 90 family members are here. Usually, the families stay at the Fisher House, a collection of nine suites. Families are offered chaplain and mental health services. The president and other military dignitaries would normally pay respects to the families in the Center of the Families of the Fallen, Williams said, but he added that there were so many family members that Dover officials were forced to make alternative arrangements.
The fallen were first transported from Afghanistan to Ramstein, Germany. The usual procedure is to transport them from Ramstein to Dover on the fastest possible flight, whether that is a military flight or a commercial cargo flight. Williams declined to say which was the case for the 30 servicemen. As per custom, they were transported in flag-draped containers, not burial caskets, he said.
When the remains arrive at Dover, the official delegation, including the president, go inside the plane, where the chaplain says a few words and asks if family members would like a prayer. The delegation then returns outside to the tarmac. A military carry team picks up each transport container and a command is given to render honors, by which everyone within earshot either salutes or places a hand over his or her heart. The containers are then carried off the plane to a vehicle for transport to the mortuary.
Mortuary examiners generally try to make a positive identification within three days, Williams said. He added that the large number of bodies should not delay the procedure because more staff can be brought in for the examination.
The services provided at Dover are a “very big source of pride,” Williams said. “There is a sense of duty and honor we give to fallen service members and families. We represent the nation and a grateful nation at that.”
After the identifications are made, Williams said, the bodies are dressed in whatever clothing the families have requested for transfer. Some want full military uniforms, others business suits and others t-shirts, jeans and cowboy boots, Williams said.
“We are there for families,” he said. “We don’t tell them what we will give them. They tell us and we accommodate.”
If the remains are too damaged to be clothed, Williams said, the clothes are laid on top.