DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AP) - President Donald Trump paid respects Thursday to two Army officers who were killed when their helicopter crashed this week in Afghanistan, holding his salute until each of the flag-draped cases containing their remains were returned to their grieving families
Trump and his wife, Melania, traveled to Dover Air Force Base to offer condolences to the families of Chief Warrant Officer 2 David C. Knadle, 33, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kirk T. Fuchigami Jr., 25.
The president and first lady led a group of dignitaries that included Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien. Trump and members of the military saluted and civilians placed a hand over their hearts as a carry team of six white-gloved members of the Army's Old Guard executed the delicate task of transferring the remains from a vehicle the military referred to as a ramp to a waiting vehicle, one case at a time.
Trump has said witnessing the dignified transfer of service members' remains is "the toughest thing I have to do" as president.
As the final day of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry wound down, Trump left the White House for the short flight to the Delaware military base, where the remains of service members killed abroad are returned to U.S. soil.
Knadle, of Tarrant, Texas, and Fuchigami Jr., of Keaau, Hawaii, died Wednesday when their helicopter crashed as they provided security for troops on the ground in Logar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Both were assigned to Fort Hood, Texas.
Wednesday's crash brought this year's U.S. death toll in Afghanistan to 19, excluding three noncombat deaths.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter, but the U.S. military has dismissed that as a false claim. The crash remains under investigation.
Trump broke off peace talks with the Taliban in September after a bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
Trump and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke on the phone Thursday, the White House announced, and both "agreed a reduction in violence is necessary to move the peace process forward" and for all-Afghan negotiations regarding a political settlement to be successful.
The president also thanked Ghani for his support in seeking the release of two Western hostages the Taliban freed this week after holding them in captivity for more than three years, said spokesman Judd Deere.
More than 2,400 Americans have died in the nearly 18-year war.
Last month, as Trump sought to justify his unpopular decision to remove a small contingent of U.S. service members from northeastern Syria, he began to describe his experiences at Dover and argue for removing the U.S. from "endless wars" in the Middle East, which he campaigned on in the 2016 presidential race.
The president has described the sight of cavernous aircraft pulling up on the base, doors opening, uniformed service members carrying flag-draped "transfer cases" and once-stoic parents breaking down.
"Sometimes they'll run to the coffin. They'll break through military barriers," Trump said at an unrelated White House event on Oct. 9. "They'll run to the coffin and jump on top of the coffin. Crying mothers and wives. Crying desperately."
"And this is on these endless wars that just never stop," he said. "And there's a time and there's a place, but it's time to stop."
Nothing like the scene Trump described took place at Thursday's ceremony. The families were kept out of sight of the news media.
Trump was also joined by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Sgt. Major Michael Grinston and actor Jon Voight.
Trump awarded the Oscar-winning actor the prestigious National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony earlier Thursday. Voight said in Delaware that Trump invited him to come along if he wanted to.
Voight said he did not meet the families but watched from a distance as the soldiers' remains were transferred. He said he accompanied the president because "I just wanted to pay my respects, say a little prayer."
Thursday's trip was Trump's second to the Delaware military base this year, and his third visit there overall as president.
Trump went to the base in January 2019 for the return of four Americans who were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria.
He attended his first transfer service in February 2017, for the return of a Navy SEAL who was killed during a raid on an al-Qaida compound in Yemen.