DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Several of President Barack Obama’s top national security advisers stood on a silent, windy tarmac Wednesday night to watch as the bodies of six U.S. soldiers killed by a rogue Afghan policeman returned to U.S. soil.
The six were killed in Afghanistan on Monday when the border policeman turned his gun on his American trainers as the group headed to shooting practice. The gunman was killed in the shootout in Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the officer had enlisted as a sleeper agent to have an opportunity to kill foreigners.
The only sound during the “dignified transfer” was of the wind blowing through the 747 jet engines as the flag-topped caskets, called transfer cases, were lowered to the ground. Teams of white-gloved pallbearers carried each casket to a waiting truck. Fathers, mothers wives and other family of five of the soldiers traveled to Dover for Wednesday’s return.
The dead are Sgt. Barry E. Jarvis of Tell City, Ind.; Pfc. Jacob A. Gassen of Beaver Dam, Wis.; Pvt. Buddy W. McLain of Peru, Maine; Spec. Matthew W. Ramsey of Quartz Hill, Calif.; Pvt. Austin G. Staggs of Senoia, Ga., and Staff Sgt. Curtis A. Oakes of Athens, Ohio.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who is vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a delegation of U.S. officials to pay respects. The unusually large group that flew from Washington included national security adviser Tom Donilon and several senior National Security Council advisers. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy and Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey and several senior Pentagon officers also attended.
The soldiers’ bodies were flown together from Germany to Dover Air Force Base, where they will be formally identified at an Air Force mortuary. Within days the dead will be returned to their families for burial.
Families may choose whether to attend the brief, solemn ceremony beside the plane that brings the bodies home. Those who attend stand separately from the official party paying respects and from the news media.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ended an 18-year ban on media coverage of the returns last year.
The families of Jarvis, Gassen and McLain allowed media to watch and photograph the transfer of caskets Wednesday.
The attack was the deadliest of its kind in at least two years. It underscored one of the risks in a U.S.-led program to train enough recruits to turn over the lead for security to Afghan forces by 2014.
Attacks on NATO troops by Afghan policemen or soldiers, although still rare, have increased as the coalition has accelerated the program. Other problems with the rapidly growing security forces include drug use, widespread illiteracy and high rates of attrition.
This is the deadliest year of the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, with more than 450 U.S. troops killed. More than 1,300 U.S. forces have died there since the war began in 2001, a majority of them in the past two years as fighting has intensified and Obama ordered more than 30,000 reinforcements.
McLain wasthe third soldier from Maine to die in Afghanistan this month and the 57th soldier with Maine ties to die since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started in 2001, according to a tally by the Bangor Daily News. Spc. Andrew Hutchins, 20, of New Portland, died on Nov. 8 in Khost Province. Marine 1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman, whose parents live in Smyrna Mills, was killed Nov. 2 in Helmand province.
The U.S. now has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, a record. Obama plans to begin withdrawing some forces in July, on the way to an eventual transfer of security control to the Afghan forces now being recruited and trained under U.S. and NATO supervision.
CORRECTION: Buddy McLain’s residence was in Peru, Maine. The Department of Defense has listed his hometown as Mexico, Maine.