Delaware - President Barack Obama saw first hand the human cost of the Afghanistan war as he welcomed home on Thursday 18 soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan this week.
Obama, flying in his Marine One presidential helicopter, landed shortly after midnight in Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the United States' largest military mortuary and main point of entry for U.S. service members killed abroad.
Minutes earlier, an Air Force C-17 transport aircraft landed in the base, carrying the bodies of eight Army soldiers killed by a roadside bomb and seven soldiers and three DEA agents killed in a helicopter crash, according to the military.
Obama went into a meeting with families of the killed soldiers and agents in a chapel on the base, military officials said.
Later, a military chaplain will accompany Obama and other officials onboard and say a prayer over each flag-draped casket before it is transferred out of the aircraft, the officials said.
Six service members will carry each casket. Most of the event was closed to media and journalists will be allowed to see the transfer of only one casket, bearing the body of Sergeant Dale Griffin of Indiana.
The previously unannounced trip, Obama's first visit to the Dover base as president, comes as he weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency that has reached its fiercest level in eight years.
This month has been the deadliest for U.S. forces in the unpopular eight-year war Obama inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and which analysts say will likely help define his presidency.
Polls show Americans increasingly weary of the war and there is skepticism, including among Obama's fellow Democrats who control the U.S. Congress, over sending more troops.
Obama has held a series of meetings with his war Cabinet to review the new Afghan strategy he put in place in March and to consider a request by his top military commander in the field, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops to combat a resurgent Taliban.
He is set to meet again on Friday with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the military services, the White House said.
Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said on Tuesday the decision-making process was probably getting to the end and a final decision could be expected in the coming weeks.
MEDIA BAN RELAXED
Critics, particularly among opposition Republicans, accuse Obama of being overly cautious and indecisive, but the White House has said a decision of such magnitude requires careful consideration.
The process has been complicated by an Afghan presidential election in August marred by widespread fraud in favor of incumbent president Hamid Karzai. A second round is due to be held on November 7.
Underlining the fragility of the security situation even in the capital, Kabul, Taliban militants stormed a guest-house in Kabul on Wednesday and killed five U.N. foreign staff.
About two-thirds of the 100,000 NATO-led forces are U.S. troops. More than 900 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon relaxed its ban on media coverage of returning U.S. war dead by allowing families to decide whether to allow photos and television footage of the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.
The ban had been imposed since the days of the 1991 Gulf War with some exceptions, including the return of Navy seamen killed during the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.
Bush imposed a stricter ban during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking criticism the federal government was hiding the human cost of its military operations.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)