WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama made an unscheduled visit in the predawn darkness Thursday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where he paid respects to 18 U.S. soldiers and drug enforcement agents killed in Afghanistan.
The president's unscheduled visit, for which he departed the White House just before midnight Wednesday, comes as he prepares to announce his decision on troop levels in Afghanistan. Military officials are asking for as many as 40,000 additional troops.
The public, military and foreign policy analysts, fellow Democrats, and indeed many of his own administration advisers are deeply divided over the issue of whether to expand or scale back the mission. Obama, under fire, has said he does not want to be rushed into a decision.
It also comes in the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and six months after the Pentagon lifted its ban on media coverage of fallen soldiers arriving at the Delaware base. The White House released pool reports detailing the president's visit.
Marine One landed at Dover at 12:34 a.m. The remains of the U.S. personnel — 15 soldiers and three DEA agents — arrived ahead of the president.
As released by the White House, the president was being accompanied by: 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, serving as Dignified Transfer Host Officer.
Upon arrival, the president was greeted by Col. Manson Morris, commander of the 436th Airlift Wing. Then the president was taken by motorcade to meet families of the fallen at a chapel on the base. Protocol dictated Obama was then to board a C-17, where Maj. Richard S. Bach, an Air Force chaplain, would say a prayer, and the flag-draped "transfer cases" carrying remains would be carried each by white-gloved six-person teams to vehicles, for transport to Port Mortuary.
The pool was permitted to watch the transfer of the remains of Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind. This took place about 3:40 a.m.
The president and his group walked off the C-17 and stood at attention in a single-file line. Minutes later, Griffin's family was brought to the same area. The president and his group saluted as the flag-draped case came off the plane and was placed on the white mortuary van.
The president departed Dover just after 4 a.m., heading back to the White House for a full schedule.