WASHINGTON – The hum of the C-17 plane enveloped Dover Air Force Base as 13 service members who were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, made their final trip home.
The first casket was carried off the plane in Delaware and placed into a gray van. Only the gentle “hup, hup” from the team carrying the cases and an anguished sob as the second service member returned could be heard during the somber 45-minute event.
President Joe Biden, wearing a black face mask, stood with his hand over his heart as the first case was carried off the plane and transferred to a van. Standing with first lady Jill Biden, the president bowed his head and closed his eyes.
It was Biden’s first time as president witnessing a “dignified transfer,” a process that honors slain service members returning to the USA. Before the transfer, Biden met with families of the service members.
The United States continued retaliatory strikes Sunday after a suicide bomber killed 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman and an Army soldier Thursday, along with at least 169 Afghans.
“These American service members who gave their lives … were heroes, heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others,” Biden said hours after the attack at Kabul’s airport Thursday.
Friday, a retaliatory U.S. drone strike killed two members of a terrorist group called ISIS-K, a regional affiliate of the Islamic State. Sunday, the Pentagon said a U.S. drone strike targeted an “imminent ISIS-K threat” to the Kabul airport. A U.S. official said the strike hit a suicide bomber.
Members of the news media watched Sunday at Dover Air Force Base as 11 cases were carried off the plane. Two other transfers were conducted in private at the request of the families of the service members.
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The Department of Defense released names and details Saturday of the service members killed:
- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas
- Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23, of Sacramento, California
- Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City
- U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tennessee
- Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, California
- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20, Jackson, Wyoming
- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, California
- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, California
- Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha, Nebraska
- Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosariopichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Massachusetts
- Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Indiana
- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Missouri
- Navy hospital corpsman Max Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio
Biden and his administration have received backlash for their handling of the evacuation in Afghanistan. At least one family member of the 13 service members publicly criticized the president and military officials.
Steve Nikoui, father of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui, told the Daily Beast, “I blame my own military leaders. … Biden turned his back on him. That’s it.” Steve Nikoui said he was a supporter of former President Donald Trump.
In an interview with Reuters, Nikoui said, “I’m really disappointed in the way that the president has handled this, even more so the way the military has handled it. The commanders on the ground should have recognized this threat and addressed it.”
Asked about Nikoui’s statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he feels “deeply sorry” for the loss of lives.
“There are no words that I can say – that, I think, anyone can say – to assuage the grief that a parent is feeling at the loss of their child. Nothing,” Blinken said. “And if I were in his shoes, probably I’d feel exactly the same way.
“As a parent myself, I feel deeply what he expressed,” he said. “And all I can say is, I’m deeply, deeply sorry.”
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Tom Vanden Brook
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_