Dover Air Force Base, Del. (AP) - Standing in the pre-dawn darkness, President Barack Obama saw the real cost of the war in Afghanistan: The Americans who return in flag-covered cases while much of the nation sleeps in peace.
In a surprise midnight dash to this Delaware base, where U.S. forces killed overseas come home, Obama honored the return of 18 fallen Americans Thursday. All were killed in Afghanistan this week, a brutal stretch that turned October into the most deadly month for U.S. troops since the war began.
The dramatic image of a president on the tarmac was a portrait not witnessed in years. Former President George W. Bush said the appropriate way to show his respect for war's cost was to meet with grieving military families in private, as he often did, but he never went to Dover to meet remains coming off the cargo plane. Obama did so with the weight of knowing he may soon send more troops off to war.
For all the talk of his potential troop increase - maybe 40,000, maybe some other large figure - Obama got a grim reminder of the number that counts: one.
His name was Dale R. Griffin, an Army sergeant from Terre Haute, Ind. He was the last fallen soldier to come before Obama. And his remains were the only ones of the 18 to be honored in full view of the media. An 18-year ban on such coverage, dating to the 1991 Gulf War and strengthened by Bush, was relaxed this year under Obama's watch, allowing families to decide whether cameras can document the return. Nearly two-thirds have said yes.
The president led a team of officials onto the gray C-17 cargo plane carrying Griffin, and then back off, where they stood for several minutes in a line of honor.
It was not quite 4 a.m. The sky was black and a yellowish light came from poles flanking the flight. The only sounds were a whirring power unit on the plane and the clicking of cameras. A blue vehicle carrying members of Griffin's family pulled up.
The president then saluted as six soldiers in camouflage and black berets carried Griffin's remains down the ramp and into a waiting white van.
On a clear fall night, the president had zipped to Dover on a 40-minute helicopter ride from the White House. He immediately sat down privately with all the family members in a base chapel.
The solemn process of transferring remains of 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency agents unfolded in four separate movements. Obama took part in all of them. A chaplain offered prayers for the fallen, the crews that brought them home, the families who lost a loved one, and a nation embroiled in war.
The military calls the process a dignified transfer, not a ceremony, because there is nothing to celebrate. The cases are not labeled coffins, although they come off looking that way, enveloped in flags.
By 4:45 a.m., the president had touched back down on the South Lawn, where a usually active White House was sleepy. He walked inside, alone.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama remained quiet on the flight back, thanking his team for making the trip possible but saying little else.
"I don't think you can go out there and not understand what you are seeing," said Gibbs, one of the few aides who accompanied Obama for the trip. "It's hard not to be overwhelmed."
A president of two inherited wars, Obama is winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq, but the troubled conflict in Afghanistan is only widening. It has become the dominant foreign policy challenge of his early presidency. The stability of Afghanistan remains in doubt while the support of the American people is waning.
Obama already has upped the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan to 68,000 troops and is considering sending a large new addition, although fewer than the 40,000 troops requested by his commander there, U.S. officials tell The Associated Press. He holds his next war council meeting with the Joints Chiefs of Staff on Friday.
Obama is faced with a crucial moment: How to keep al-Qaida terrorists from taking root again in Afghanistan without sinking more American lives and money into a war that isn't working. Aides say he still is weeks away from making an announcement.
But that wasn't the focus during Obama's trip, planned starting Tuesday but kept quiet until a small group of reporters was told just hours before the president left, Gibbs said. The president chose to go to Dover now given the enormous blow to U.S. forces just this week, in a month where at least 55 U.S. troops have been killed.
On Monday, a U.S. military helicopter crashed returning from the scene of a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan, killing 10 Americans including three DEA agents. On Tuesday, eight soldiers were killed when their personnel vehicles were struck by roadside bombs in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. It was those 18 dead that Obama saw home.
Separately, four more U.S. troops died Monday when two helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan.
The ban on media coverage of bodies returning to Dover was criticized for shielding the public from the human cost of war.
Now it is no more. Obama saw it directly, and the press bore witness.
Standing in the pre-dawn darkness, President Barack Obama saw the real cost of the war in Afghanistan: The Americans who return in flag-covered cases while much of the nation sleeps in peace.