DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — The fallen come home here with such dignity that every American flag on every case of remains is inspected for the tiniest smudge. The dead are treated with reverence by everyone. Including their commander in chief.
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 nation's single deadliest day of the decadelong war in Afghanistan. For the families of the 30 Americans who were killed when their helicopter was shot down on Saturday, it was a time to remember the dreams their loved ones had lived, not the ambitions that died with them.
Obama solemnly climbed aboard the two C-17 cargo planes carrying the fallen home from Afghanistan. Later, the president consoled their grieving families. He stood in honor 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.
The helicopter crash in Afghanistan was that horrific.
The troops who died had been flying on a mission to help fellow forces under fire. Their helicopter apparently was hit by an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade.
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. Remains that are identified through DNA as those of the Afghans will be flown back to Kabul.
Saturday's blow claimed 22 Navy SEALs from the same special forces team that pulled off the remarkable mission in Pakistan that killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. None of those killed on the helicopter were part of the bin Laden raid, but the connection, along with the size of the loss, was deeply felt.
Obama watched as the cases were taken off the planes in a hangar, the White House said. He stood in salute as teams carried the cases, one by one, along a red carpet and into waiting vans.
The president met with about 250 family members and fellow service members 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.
For these troops 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 chooses. It could be military dress. Or jeans, a T-shirt and cowboy boots.
And always, with reverence.
"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."