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DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. – Standing in the pre-dawn darkness, President Barack Obama saw the real cost of the war in Afghanistan: The Americans who return in flag-covered cases while much of the nation sleeps in peace.
Obama got a grim reminder of the number that counts: one.
His name was Dale R. Griffin, an Army sergeant from Terre Haute, Ind. He was the last fallen soldier to come before Obama. And his remains were the only ones to be honored in full view of the media with the permission of his family. An 18-year ban on such coverage was lifted this year under Obama's watch.
The president led a team of officials onto the gray C-17 cargo plane carrying Griffin, and then back off, where they stood for several minutes in a line of honor.
It was not quite 4 a.m. The sky was black and a yellowish light came from poles flanking the flight. The only sounds were a whirring power unit on the plane and the clicking of cameras. A blue vehicle carrying members of Griffin's family pulled up.
The president saluted as six soldiers in camouflage and black berets carried Griffin's remains into a waiting white van.
The military calls the process a dignified transfer, not a ceremony, because there is nothing to celebrate. The cases are not labeled coffins, although they come off looking that way, enveloped in flags.
On a clear fall night, the president zipped to Dover in about 40 minutes. He immediately spoke privately in a chapel with all the family members.