President Obama made an unscheduled, overnight trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to observe up close a "solemn dignified transfer movement," the event which marks the return to the U.S. of the remains of fallen service members.
Military and White House officials said this particular movement involved the incoming remains of 15 service members and three Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were killed in Afghanistan Oct. 26.
This afternoon in the Oval Office, the president, sitting next to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, reflected on his visit.
"Obviously it was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day," the president said, in response to a question from a reporter. "Not only our troops but their families as well."
The president added that "Michelle and I are constantly mindful of their sacrifices and obviously the burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts. And you know, it is something that I think about each and every day."
This is the first time Obama has participated in this type of military event. The president also met with the families of the fallen. Former President George W. Bush met often with military families but never attended a similar transfer ceremony.
Earlier this year, Obama lifted the 18-year ban on media coverage of the return of fallen soldiers to Dover, a ban critics said hid the costs of war from the American people. A senior White House official told ABC News that the president had wanted to do this ever since the policy of media coverage of the return of fallen troops was changed, but he wanted to do so "in a way that caused the least amount of disruption."
On Tuesday White House officials, including military aide U.S. Navy Lt.Cmdr. Clay Beers, explored the logistics of this visit. On Wednesday at noon the decision was made to go.
The president arrived at Dover AFB at 12:34 a.m. after a 40-minute chopper ride from the White House. An Air Force C-17 carrying the 18 fallen U.S. personnel had arrived at Dover before the president. Among the dead on board were seven U.S. Army soldiers and three DEA agents killed when their MH-47 Chinook crashed at Darreh-ye-bum, and eight U.S. soldiers killed when their STRYKER personnel vehicle was struck by IED blast in the Arghandab River Valley.
The military confirmed the name of only one of the soldiers whose transfer the president witnessed: Sgt Dale R. Griffin, from Terre Haute, Ind., who served in Operation Enduring Freedom.
At 3:39 a.m. the president walked up the ramp of the C-17 to attend a short prayer given by Maj. Richard S. Bach, an Air Force chaplain. Obama emerged minutes later, the last in a line of personnel, and stood at attention in the cool night breeze, his hands cupped at his side. At 3:50 a.m. the flag-draped transfer case -- not a coffin or casket -- was carried from the plane to a waiting vehicle while all those participating saluted.
At one point before the dignified transfers, President Obama spent time on the plane, accompanied by just Beers, otherwise alone with the 18 fallen soldiers.
Griffin's family gave permission for the media to cover the transfer.
The three DEA agents killed were identified as 37-year-old Forrest Leamon and 30-year-old Chad Michael, both from Virginia, and 37-year-old Michael Weston of Washington. Weston, like Obama, was a Harvard Law School graduate.
Obama's participation in this sad military tradition comes at a critical time for the president, as he weighs sending as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama continues to deliberate with his commanders and advisors and will likely make a decision on troop levels in the next few weeks.
A Solemn Movement, Not a Ceremony
The dignified transfer is not considered a "ceremony" by the military; rather, it is considered a "solemn movement" of the transfer case carrying a soldiers' remains. A team of six military personnel from the fallen member's respective service carry the case and a senior flag officer attends every transfer.
A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of their country.
The official party this night included Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, U.S. Army Assistant Judge Advocate Maj Gen Daniel Wright, U.S. Army Special Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Repass, and Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center Col. Robert Edmondson, who will serve as the Dignified Transfer Host Officer.
On the helicopter flight back to Washington, D.C., the president thanked Beers for arranging the trip, after which no one said a word for the remainder of the 45-minute flight.
"Sending men and women into combat is the toughest part of the job," the official says, "and this is what happens when they come home tragically. It was very, very powerful."
The president returned to the White House at 4:43am.