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Originally published August 9, 2011 at 9:10 PM | Page modified August 9, 2011 at 9:17 PM

Poignant, solemn service for fallen American forces

Their return home was as elite and secretive as their mission, which ended Saturday in a devastating helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan.

McClatchy Newspapers

quotes May they all rest in peace. Semper Fi. Read more
quotes Their return home was as elite and secretive as their mission, It's too bad that... Read more
quotes It's a sad sign of the times but my first thought of the tragic end of these lives came... Read more

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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 U.S. on 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 decadelong war in Afghanistan.

Dignitaries attend

On Tuesday, President 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.

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. 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, splitting it in two as it was landing near a firefight between U.S. Special Forces and Taliban insurgents.

No names released

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.

Those among Tuesday's cases who are identified through DNA as one of the eight Afghans 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.

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, said Van Williams, a civilian spokesman at Dover.

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