WASHINGTON (AP) — Troops killed in the deadliest incident of the Afghan war came home Tuesday — traveling in death much the same way they did in life — shrouded in secrecy.
Two C-17 aircraft carrying the remains of 30 killed in a weekend helicopter crash arrived late in the morning at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the Pentagon said.
But three days after the downing of the aircraft by insurgents, Defense Department leaders were still debating whether to release their names, several senior officials said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan declined to say why identities of the dead hadn’t been made public, though some of their families have publicly named their loved ones and spoken openly about the deaths.
But several officials said privately there is hesitancy to release the names because the majority were from secretive special operations forces, including 22 U.S. Navy SEAL personnel.
This debate continued, they said, despite the fact that it is department policy to release such names when the troops are killed.
The press also has been banned from a ceremony at Dover, expected to be attended by the top Pentagon civilians and military leaders.
The caskets that arrived Tuesday contained the dead from Saturday’s crash in the Tangi Valley, a dangerous area of Wardak province on the doorstep of the Afghan capital. The 30 U.S. troops, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter who died were taking part in one of thousands of nighttime operations being conducted annually across the nation.
Officials say they believe their Chinook helicopter was hit by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade as it tried to land to reinforce an earlier party of U.S. troops that had called for reinforcements.
Lapan said the reason the press is not allowed at the military’s “dignified transfer” ceremony at Dover is because the badly damaged remains are mingled and not all identified.
Usually, the families of the deceased are allowed to determine whether there will be press coverage. But the Pentagon said in a statement this week that that “due to the catastrophic nature of the crash, the remains of our fallen service members will be returned … in `unidentified’ status until they can be positively identified by the Armed Forces Mortuary Affairs Office at Dover. Because the remains are unidentified at this point, next-of-kin are not in a position to grant approval for media access to the dignified transfer.”
It appeared likely that remains of Afghans killed in the crash also arrived at Dover, since Lapan said that an attempt was not made to separate the remains of Afghans killed in the crash.
The ceremony was expected to take several hours due to the number of caskets, which are taken off the plane individually in a slow, somber ceremony with honors guards.
An 18-year ban on media coverage of the returns at Dover was lifted in 2009 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, leaving the decision to the families of the war dead.
Several news organizations have protested the Pentagon decision to prohibit coverage Tuesday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)