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Obama honors fallen troops; Meets grieving families at Dover ceremony

For the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama was at Dover on Tuesday, saluting troops who died on his watch.

Sadness hung everywhere. For Obama, it was a day to deal with the single deadliest attack on U.S. troops in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. For the families of the 30 Americans who were killed Saturday, it was a time to remember the dreams their loved ones had lived, not the ones that died with them.

Obama solemnly climbed aboard the two C-17 cargo planes carrying the fallen home from Afghanistan to pay respects. Their helicopter apparently had been hit by an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade.

Later, the president consoled their grieving families. He stood silently as the flag-covered cases were carried off the planes in front of him.

The country didn't see it.

There will be no lasting, gripping images this time of Obama assuming his office's grimmest role. No family could give permission for media coverage, the military said, because no individual bodies had been identified yet, although families have released some of the names.

For Americans with no sons, daughters, other relatives or friends in the military, this punch seemed to blindside everyone. The war is supposed to be winding down, and the face behind it, Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, was killed months ago by elite U.S. forces.

Saturday's blow claimed 22 Navy SEALs from the same special forces team that pulled off the remarkable mission in Pakistan that ended bin Laden. None of those killed on the helicopter was part of that raid, but the connection, along with the size of the loss, was deeply felt.

The troops who died had been flying on a mission to help fellow forces under fire.

The fallen were described as intensely patriotic, talented and passionate about the risks and responsibilities that came with their jobs.

Some were married with children. One wanted to be an astronaut. Another was going to propose to his girlfriend when he got home.

Three were from the same Army reserve unit in Kansas: Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment.

Seven Afghan commandos and one Afghan interpreter were killed, too, when the helicopter crashed in the Tangi Valley.

On Tuesday, 30 cases draped in American flags came off the planes; eight others were covered in Afghan flags.

The president had flown by helicopter to Dover.

The trip was kept private by the White House until he landed as a measure of security, although expectations were high he would be there.

Upon arriving, Obama boarded one plane carrying remains to pay respects to the fallen and did so again on the second plane.

He then met with about 250 family members and fellow servicemen and women of the dead. He spent about 70 minutes with family members, offering his condolences and gratitude for their sacrifice and service, the White House said. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen joined in.

The process of honoring the troops, known as a dignified transfer, continued through the afternoon. Reporters were kept out of sight in a nearby building.

As described to reporters, Obama and the rest of the official party, including military leaders, boarded the cargo planes. A chaplain said a prayer.

Then the president and the rest of the dignitaries stood somberly in a hangar as remains were carried out in transfer cases, one by one, along a red carpet and into waiting vans.

Teams on site ensure the cases come off the plane in perfect shape. They are carried down by personnel from each fallen member's service who are specially chosen for the high honor.

Three days after the downing of the aircraft, the Defense Department has not released the troops' names. Officials say it is taking time because there were so many killed. Others say privately there is hesitancy to release the names because the majority were from sensitive special operations forces.

The military has launched an investigation into the helicopter crash. The probe will address a host of questions, including the decision to send a Chinook helicopter packed with Navy and Air Force special operations forces to a firefight to assist troops on the ground.

There also will be questions about why that team was called in, what they knew about the situation on the ground and what protections they may have had against fire from the ground.

Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, has appointed Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt to lead the investigation. Colt is deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

For the troops returning in cases on Tuesday, and so many others over the months and years, Dover personnel eventually return the bodies, if possible, to their loved ones in whatever clothing the family choses.

"It is a very big source of pride, and a sense of duty and honor that we give to the fallen service members," said Dover mortuary affairs spokesman Van Williams. "We represent the nation. And a grateful nation at that."

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