DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware (Reuters) - President Barack Obama honored 30 U.S. soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan as their remains returned home Tuesday in a private ceremony from which the media were barred.
Three days after Taliban militants shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing all 38 people on board, many questions remain — including whether protocol was followed as elite U.S. forces were sent to help comrades in a firefight.
The deaths have resonated in the United States because of the sheer number of casualties and because many of them came from the same Navy SEAL unit that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. None of the dead men were involved in that raid in Pakistan in early May.
While the number of casualties was a stark reminder of the costs of the Afghan war — it was the single deadliest incident of the 10-year conflict — the Pentagon strictly barred reporters from witnessing the ceremony.
Because of the catastrophic nature of the crash, the military has been unable to individually identify the remains of the victims, including those of Afghans. Pentagon officials said that meant U.S. military families could not give their consent to reporters to cover the repatriations, consent that is required under U.S. government policy.
Obama and top military officials joined families in witnessing what the Pentagon called the “dignified transfer” of remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the largest U.S. military mortuary.
The helicopter incident added to a week of gloomy news for Obama. His presidency is under new pressure from fears of a double-dip recession and fallout from Standard and Poor’s historic downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.
The U.S. military’s Central Command said it named an Army brigadier general to investigate the crash. Given the number of elite special forces killed — 25 according to one tally, with 22 of them Navy SEALs — multiple probes are possible.
The Pentagon has not yet released the names of those killed, even though relatives have come forward to talk to the media. U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said some commanders voiced concerns that releasing the names might endanger families of the elite teams.
The homecoming for personnel remains is among the most somber, dignified ceremonies for the U.S. military. But the Pentagon’s edict barring coverage Tuesday rekindled friction between the Obama administration and the media.
At a sometimes tense briefing, Colonel Dave Lapan, the Pentagon spokesman, said reporters were not allowed to cover the event because of the extreme nature of the crash.
“Because we have no identifiable remains, there can’t be family permission for media coverage,” Lapan said. “They will see transfer cases but they will not know whether their loved one is in any particular transfer case.”
Remains of the seven Afghan commandos and one translator will be returned to Afghanistan once they are identified.
A White House official said Obama, who flew to the Dover base shortly after midday, boarded each of the two huge C-17 aircraft holding the remains and paid his respects.
The planes were backed up to a hangar door and the cases unloaded — 20 from one aircraft, 18 from another — draped with 30 American and 8 Afghan flags, said a White House official who was present.
Obama then spent an hour and 10 minutes offering condolences to about 250 family members and armed service personnel. He was accompanied by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Journalists accompanying Obama were taken to a holding area away from the event.
Former President George W. Bush upheld and made stricter a 1991 ban on media coverage of returning U.S. dead during the wars during the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking criticism the government was hiding the human cost of its military operations.
The Obama administration relaxed the Pentagon ban in 2009, giving grieving families the choice of whether to allow cameras at the solemn arrival ceremony.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Monday the CH-47 Chinook helicopter was fired on by a rocket-propelled grenade while carrying the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an ongoing fight.
One of the many issues observers expected to be investigated was why the elite fighters traveled in the Army-owned chopper, instead of a MH-47 more commonly used by special forces.
There are thousands of U.S. special forces operating in Afghanistan and they have been involved in more than 2,000 operations to go after specific militants over the past year, according to Pentagon estimates.
But rocket-propelled grenade attacks like this one rarely take down a helicopter and had not killed so many U.S. forces at once in Afghanistan until now.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Paul Tait in Kabul; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Philip Barbara and John O'Callaghan