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Obama calls Dover visit a 'sobering reminder'

President Barack Obama says the sight of 18 cases holding the remains of Americans killed in Afghanistan can't help but influence his thinking about sending more troops overseas.
Image: Barack Obama
President Barack Obama, center, Army Assistant Judge Advocate Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright, second from right, and Army Special Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Repass salute as soldiers carry the transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. Dale R. Griffin at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Thursday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hours after a personal encounter with the grim cost of war, President Barack Obama said Thursday the sight of 18 flag-covered cases holding the remains of Americans killed this week in Afghanistan can't help but influence his thinking about sending more troops overseas.

"It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said from the White House, reflecting briefly on his surprise middle-of-the-night trip to Dover Air Force Base to observe the return of the fallen Americans to the United States.

Speaking softly and somewhat haltingly, Obama said losses such as these are "something that I think about each and every day."

Asked whether the somber experience — watching cases carrying the remains come off a giant C-17 cargo plane one by one in the darkness and meeting privately with families so fresh in their grief — will affect his overhaul of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the president didn't hesitate to say that it would. But neither did he elaborate.

"The burden that both our troops and their families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts," he said, adding nothing more.

Speaking to the relatives
By many accounts, it was a difficult night.

After a 40-minute helicopter ride around midnight to the Delaware base where U.S. personnel killed overseas come home, Obama went immediately to a chapel to speak with relatives of the fallen. Their loved ones had died just two or three days before.

Of the 18 fallen Americans on the C-17, 10 of them — including three Drug Enforcement Administration agents — were killed Monday when a U.S. military helicopter crashed returning from a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan. The other eight soldiers were killed Tuesday when their personnel vehicles were struck by roadside bombs in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

The military calls the process of removing remains from the plane 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.

A group of dignitaries, in this case including Obama, boards the plane for prayers, then stands in a line of honor outside. The family is brought up in a van. Then six soldiers in camouflage and black berets carry each case down the ramp and into a waiting van.

Most of what Obama saw, though, was private.

An 18-year ban on coverage of Dover homecomings, dating to the 1991 Gulf War and strengthened by former President George W. Bush, was relaxed this year under Obama's watch. Now, families get to decide whether cameras can document the return. Nearly two-thirds have said yes to the media and even more to coverage by Pentagon cameras.

Only one casket taped
In this case, the return of only one of the 18 was open to the media.

His name was Dale R. Griffin, an Army sergeant from Terre Haute, Ind., and a top wrestler in high school and in college at Virginia Military Institute. He was remembered Thursday by friends and a former coach as particularly tenacious. Vigo County (Ind.) Judge Chris Newton, a family friend, described him as "unbelievably tough and resilient."

It is unclear why the other families declined coverage.

But none who came to Dover was told that Obama was coming until they were already there, so his planned presence was not a factor, said Dover spokesman Air Force Maj. Carl Grusnick.

The wife of Army Pfc. Brian Bates, who died Tuesday in Afghanistan, said she changed her mind and decided against allowing coverage after learning by phone around 11 p.m. EDT Wednesday that Obama would attend.

"Brian met the president, and that's all that matters," Enjolie Bates, who was not at Dover for the transfer, said in a telephone interview from her home in Lakewood, Wash. "I know he would like that. We didn't need to broadcast it to the world."

Both Marine Col. David Lapan, the Pentagon's public affairs director, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said there was no suggestion from the government for the families to lean either way on media coverage.

Griffin's remains were the last to be carried past the president. It was not quite 4 a.m. The sky was black and a yellowish light came from poles flanking the plane. The only sounds were a whirring power unit on the plane and the clicking of cameras. The president saluted as Griffin's case came down the ramp.

By 4:45 a.m., five hours after leaving the White House, the president had touched back down on the South Lawn. He walked inside, alone.

Gibbs said later that Obama remained quiet on the way back, saying thanks to his team but little else.

"I don't think you can go out there and not understand what you are seeing," said Gibbs, clearly shaken and moved by the experience. "It's hard not to be overwhelmed."

The president's trip to Dover, something he has wanted to do for months, came at a pivotal moment for the Afghanistan war.

The enormous blow to U.S. forces there this week was part of a month in which at least 55 U.S. troops have been killed, making October the most deadly for America in Afghanistan since the war began eight years ago.

And the visit came as Obama weighs how to overhaul the war so that terrorists can't take root again in Afghanistan and more U.S. lives and money aren't sunk into an effort that doesn't work. With the stability of Afghanistan in doubt and support for the war waning at home, it has become the dominant foreign policy challenge of his early presidency.

Obama already has upped the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan to 68,000 troops and is considering sending a large amount more, although probably fewer than the 40,000 troops requested by his commander there, U.S. officials tell The Associated Press. The president holds his next war council meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, but aides say he is still weeks — perhaps several — away from a decision.

Meantime, the dramatic image of a wartime president on Dover's tarmac was a portrait not witnessed in years. Obama's predecessor said the appropriate way to show his respect for war's cost was to meet with grieving military families in private, as Bush often did, but he never observed cases carrying remains coming off a cargo plane.

And now the ban on media coverage, so criticized for shielding the public from the human cost of war, is no more. Obama saw that cost directly.

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