WASHINGTON — President Obama made a midnight dash to Dover Air Force Base Wednesday to honor the return of fallen soldiers as the United States endures its deadliest month of the Afghanistan war.
On a clear fall night, Obama flew by Marine One helicopter to Delaware to greet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans killed in action this week.
After landing around 12:34 a.m., the president traveled by motorcade to a base chapel, where he met privately with families of the fallen. He was expected to return to the White House before dawn.
Obama was taking part in a solemn process: the transfer of the remains of 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency agents from the back of the C-17, to a transport vehicle, to a base mortuary.
Obama was to go on the plane, each time witnessing silently as a chaplain said a prayer for the fallen, the family, the country and the war effort.
A wartime president of two inherited conflicts, Obama is winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq, but the troubled war in Afghanistan is widening. His visit to Dover comes as he weighs whether to send more troops into the Afghan war zone.
The White House kept Obama's plans off his schedule, informing only a small group of traveling reporters in advance on the condition of secrecy.
The Pentagon this year lifted its 18-year ban on the news media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in action, as long as the family consents to the coverage. With Obama in attendance, the media were to witness the transfer of one fallen soldier: Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind.
Griffin's flag-draped casket was to be carried off the plane by six Army soldiers in fatigues and black berets. The transfer case then was to be placed in a vehicle and taken to the mortuary on the base.
The rest of the process was kept out of the sight of the media, based on family wishes.
The Dover base, less than 100 miles from the White House, is the entry point for service personnel killed overseas.
Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, visited the families of hundreds of fallen soldiers but did not attend any military funerals or go to Dover to receive their coffins.
In a 2006 interview with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Bush said he felt that the appropriate way to show his respect was to meet with family members in private.
Obama is in the midst of an intense, weeks-long review of his strategy in Afghanistan. He has upped the U.S. commitment there 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.
Eight American troops were killed in two separate roadside bomb attacks Tuesday in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, pushing the number of American troops killed in October to at least 55. That's the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces since the 2001 invasion.
On Monday, a U.S. military helicopter crashed returning from the scene of a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers, killing 10 Americans including three Drug Enforcement Administration agents. In a separate crash, four more U.S. troops died when two helicopters collided.
The 18 returned to Dover included 10 of those killed Monday and the eight who died Tuesday.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and Army Special Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Repass were among those in the official party receiving the coffins.
Air Force personnel are diligent about not calling the transfer of remains a "ceremony." To avoid any positive connotations, they call them "dignified transfers."