By John T. Bennett - 08/09/11 08:05 PM EDT
President Obama paid his respects Tuesday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to 30 U.S. military troops who were killed Saturday in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan as they arrived back on U.S. soil for the final time.
The commander in chief spent time onboard two massive military transport planes carrying the special-operations troops' remains, and later spent about 70 minutes in private with grieving family members.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and more than 10 other top Defense Department leaders were also in attendance, according to Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
The special-operations troops were killed Saturday when Taliban forces allegedly shot down the Chinook helicopter in which they were being transported for a rescue mission. Onboard the downed chopper were 22 Navy SEALs, three Air Force special-operations troops and five Army aviation personnel. They all perished.
It was the single deadliest incident for American forces since fighting began in Afghanistan in October 2001.
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis on Tuesday appointed Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, deputy commanding general of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, to lead an investigation into the crash of the special-operations crew's CH-47 Chinook helicopter, which went down in Afghanistan's Wardak Province.
Their remains arrived at Dover Tuesday morning, according to a tweet from Lapan.
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Lapan, in an email, said Panetta was joined by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations; Army Secretary John McHugh; Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff; Air Force Under Secretary Erin Conaton; and Gen. Philip Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff. Mullen’s wife, Deborah, also attended.
Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, who formerly was the top Pentagon civilian for special-operations forces, was there as well. Also at Dover was Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy.
Obama and Panetta in separate speeches Monday mourned the loss of the elite troops, but said their deaths would not alter America’s war effort.
“We will press on and we will succeed,” Obama said at the White House during an afternoon statement.
During a change-of-command ceremony at U.S. Special Operations Command Headquarters in Florida, Panetta said: “As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan.”
The arrival of the troops' remains was closed to the media. One reason is because family members have not positively identified the remains. The Chinook crash was "so horrific" that military officials in theater were unable to ID the fallen troopers, said Van Williams, the public affairs chief for the base's mortuary.
The Dover Air Force Base mortuary staff will use DNA, fingerprints and dental records to confirm the identity of each serviceman, Williams said, according to a White House pool report.
“The crash they were in was so horrific and the state of remains such that there was no easy way to see this was this person or this was that person,” Williams said.
The troops' bodies were so mangled that they were not loaded onto the C-17s in individual containers. Instead, they were loaded "all together" in transportation cases, he said.
At least 90 family members were at Dover for the somber event, according to the White House.
Obama boarded the C-17s carrying the troops' remains, before spending more than an hour with grieving family members, according to the pool report.
—This story was originally posted at 10:44 a.m. and last updated at 4:14 p.m.