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President Obama arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday to honor the 22 Navy SEALs and eight other American troops killed in Afghanistan on Saturday when an insurgent shot down their helicopter. Reports from those at the scene indicate the president paid his respects to the soldiers in private.
Obama led a delegation of senior administration, Pentagon, and military officials to salute the flag-draped caskets of the troops who died in the worst single-day loss of the long Afghan war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen led the military delegation, the Defense Department said, which also included the senior military and civilian leadership of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.
When he arrived at the base, the president boarded each of the two C-17 aircraft that were used to bring the bodies home to pay his respects. He then met with approximately 250 family members and fellow servicemen and women of the soldiers for about 70 minutes to offer his condolences. He was accompanied by Panetta, Mullen, and Adm. William McRaven, the leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The crash in eastern Afghanistan also marked the largest death toll in the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the SEALs and other elite units.
The soldiers' remains were returned to Dover in an "unidentified" status until they are positively identified by the Armed Forces Mortuary Affairs Office. Because of the "horrific" nature of the crash, the bodies were loaded onto the plane in large transportation cases rather than a single container for each service member, said Van Willliams, the public affairs chief for the Dover Air Force Base's mortuary affairs operations.
Mortuary examiners will try to make a positive identification within three days, Williams said, and additional staff can be brought in to assist with the examination because of the large number of bodies.
Earlier Tuesday, the president canceled a visit to Interstate Moving Services in Springfield, Va., just outside of Washington, to talk about fuel efficiency standards for work trucks, buses, and other heavy duty vehicles. Instead he met industry leaders behind closed doors at the White House this morning.
The base at Dover is the central conduit for fallen Americans. The president had previously gone there in October 2009 to pay respects to 15 troops and three Drug Enforcement Administration operatives killed during a particularly bloody stretch of the war.
Rebecca Kaplan contributed