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The story of Obama's midnight trip to meet returning U.S. Afghan war dead [Updated]

October 28, 2009 |  9:16 pm

President Barack Obama salutes as the body of Sgt Dale Griffin is returned to the U.S.

[UPDATES have been added below, all times Pacific.]

President Obama made an unscheduled trip outside Washington early this morning to join a ceremony marking the return of recent U.S. war dead from Afghanistan.

The president, wearing a dark suit and long, dark overcoat and accompanied by a few aides, flew in the Marine One helicopter about 80 miles east to Dover Air Force Base, where a C-17 is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, bearing the bodies of 18 U.S. personnel killed early this week.

The president made the trip as his administration continues its now two-month-long deliberations on military strategy and troop strength.

The casualties include three Drug Enforcement Administration* agents and seven Army soldiers killed when their helicopter crashed and eight soldiers were killed in a separate incident involving an explosive device hitting their Stryker personnel vehicle. On Monday the president spoke to Navy personnel in Jacksonville, Fla. (An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the DEA as the Drug Enforcement Agency.)

(UPDATE 9:52 p.m.: The president landed near the cargo plane at 9:34 p.m. and entered an SUV for the short ride to an on-base chapel to meet privately with families of the fallen. Later, the president and Air Force Chaplain Maj. Richard Bach, among others, boarded the plane and offered a prayer before the bodies in their military transfer cases were unloaded and moved to the base mortuary.)

(UPDATE 1:48 a.m.: At 12:40 a.m. the president, his party and the military transfer detail entered the rear of the cargo plane. A minute later Obama and others emerged and formed a line. A small bus arrived carrying family members of Sgt. Dale Griffin.

As the detail carried the sergeant's body off the plane in a flag-draped case, the president and others saluted until the case was placed in a mortuary vehicle. A few minutes later the president was en route back to the White House via helicopter, where he arrived shortly before dawn Eastern time.)

This week's deaths made October the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the eight-year Afghan war. Fifty-four deaths have been announced for October, bringing the 2009 total of U.S. deaths to 276. In 2008, 155 U.S. forces were killed and 117 the year before.

Since operations to oust the Taliban began in 2001, 906 U.S. troops have died, along with another 587 coalition troops.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo: Jim Young / Reuters