WASHINGTON — Their return home was as elite and secretive as their mission, which ended Saturday in a devastating helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan.
In a war defined by instant information, cutting-edge technology and a nuanced counterinsurgency, the 30 American service members and eight Afghans killed when an insurgent shot down their Chinook helicopter west of Kabul remained anonymous even as they arrived in the United States Tuesday for the last time.
The fallen service members, most of whom were members of the covert Navy SEALs, carried out some of the most critical missions of the war. Yet it was only in their death that U.S. military commanders disclosed the details of their furtive nighttime operation that ended in the deadliest incident for U.S. forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and top Pentagon officials, along with members of the fallen servicemen's families, met the men's remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Thirty-eight cases — 30 draped with American flags and eight with Afghan flags, for Afghan special forces and a civilian translator — were unloaded from two C-17 aircraft.
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Obama had been scheduled to announce new fuel standards for trucks at an event in Virginia, but scrapped those plans to travel by plane to Dover. A somber ceremony lasted about four hours, and Obama met privately with family members for 70 minutes. He made no public statements.
Even in death, the service members' identities retained some mystery.
The Pentagon barred reporters from covering the ceremony, saying that it couldn't ask families if they wanted media coverage because the remains were unidentifiable. U.S. military officials said Monday that a rocket-propelled grenade struck the middle of the Chinook, effectively splitting it in two as it was landing near a firefight between U.S. Special Forces and Taliban insurgents.
Military officials also declined to release their names, as they usually do for those arriving at Dover, even though more than 20 families already had independently identified a loved one among the fallen.
Nearly every day, Dover receives the body of a fallen soldier from Iraq or Afghanistan, and about 70 percent of the time families agree to allow media coverage.
Those among Tuesday's cases who are identified through DNA as one of the eight Afghans — including Afghan special forces and one civilian translator — will be flown back to Kabul, officials said. The Pentagon also announced that Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt would lead an investigation into the crash.
Whatever the number of casualties, the Dover homecoming is a solemn, poignant ceremony. Each military service sends their best "carry teams" to transport the bodies to the U.S. military's main mortuary. Officials there use DNA, dental records and other methods to identify the remains, and they're placed in a casket and sent home.
In most cases, the ceremony takes place at night and lasts just a few minutes, with no dignitaries. As each case is unloaded, a call goes out for anyone within earshot to stop and salute the fallen.
"This facility is built for the fallen but we are adjusting for today," said Van Williams, a civilian spokesman at Dover.
But this time the public did not get to see the ceremony on television. With public opinion favoring American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, a drawdown of 33,000 U.S. surge troops already under way and an economic crisis dominating headlines, in fact, it would have been easy for Americans to miss the news.
Fallen troops leaving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are honored from the moment they die. As they're loaded onto a plane at a military outpost or base, hundreds gather and salute them as a chaplain reads a few words.
The soldier's flag-draped case then heads to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where, among other things, officials check that the American flag covering the case is clean and crisp enough for the fallen. The case then is placed on the first available aircraft bound for Dover.
At Dover, they're saluted in a silent ceremony only punctuated by the cadence of troops' boots as they carry the case.
The ceremony has evolved since the war in Vietnam, when there often were too many casualties to allow for such a detailed service. The last time Dover saw so many troops coming in at once was in 2004, during intense battles in Fallujah, Iraq, Williams said.
For 18 years, the ceremony was closed to the public altogether. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama asked the Pentagon to review the policy. After a month, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had served for two years under the ban and said it made him "always uncomfortable," announced that the ceremonies would be open to the public if families allowed it.
At the time, Obama noted that the public had a right to see the consequences of war, and a few months later he traveled to Dover to greet fallen service members from Afghanistan.
Late on Tuesday, after the day's remembrances were over, officials at Dover were planning for the arrival of another casualty from a separate incident in Afghanistan to be brought to the base, Williams said.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)
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