President Obama Honors Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen Killed in Afghanistan Helicopter Crash
Obama was accompanied by a number of senior government officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Approximately 250 family members and fellow service members also attended the ceremony.
The visit by the president to Dover Air Force Base was not announced in advance and journalists were not allowed to cover the repatriation ceremony. Instead, White House officials provided details of the ceremony and a still photo showing Obama and other officials was released through the White House.
Upon arrival at Dover, Obama’s motorcade drove down the tarmac to where two C-17 planes containing the remains of the service members were located. Obama was then escorted to the first plane by Colonel Camerer, according to a White House official, who said Obama spent time on board to pay his respects. Obama also boarded the second aircraft.
Afterwards, the president met informally with family members for about 70 minutes, offering his condolences for their loss and his deep gratitude for their sacrifice and service. The victims represent the deadliest day for NATO forces in the history of the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The dead servicemen included 22 U.S. Navy’s Sea, Air and Land Teams, known as Navy SEALs. Most of them were members of SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to find al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. However, none of its members involved in the Bin Laden raid were among the dead, U.S. officials said.
The Chinook helicopter crashed in the remote Tangi Valley in Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan at around 3.30 a.m. local time on Saturday. U.S. officials said the crash was probably caused by insurgents firing a rocket-propelled grenade.
Aboard the helicopter were also seven Afghan troops and an Afghan interpreter who were also killed in the crash. The military has not identified the American victims publicly as the remains were flown from Afghanistan in “unidentified” status until they are positively identified by the Armed Forces Mortuary Affairs Office. However, families have been informed and some have already talked to the media.
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. DNA, dental records and fingerprints will have to identify the remains.
“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.
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.