By Sam Youngman - 10/29/09 03:30 PM EDT
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that he was overwhelmed by what he saw when he accompanied President Barack Obama to Dover Air Force Base to meet the dead bodies of Americans killed in Afghanistan this week.
Gibbs described an emotionally wrenching scene he and President Obama saw when they met with the families during Obama's surprise trip to the base, but Gibbs said the president's trip was to pay respects and not gather information to make a decision on a strategy for the war.
The president, joined by a small group of senior advisers, met with the families and participated in "transfer ceremonies" as the bodies were moved from a cargo plane to the base morgue.
Gibbs said he heard Obama offer his condolences to the families, but he could not hear what the families said to a president who is still deciding whether to send as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Gibbs said that after Obama approved Defense Secretary Robert Gates's review and recommendation to lift the U.S. policy prohibiting photographs of the dead returning to American soil earlier this year, the president knew he wanted to visit the base.
Discussions about the visit began at the White House on Tuesday night, and a final decision was made at noon on Wednesday. Reporters were not told of the president's trip until late Wednesday night.
Of the 18 bodies that were moved in the transfer ceremony, only one family, that of Sgt. Dale Griffin, allowed the media to record the event.
Gibbs said that decision was made "soley by the family members" as per the new policy regarding photographing the returning dead.
Gibbs said the visit affects Obama's decision to send more troops to the region just as any other reminder of the sacrifices of war would.
"I've never seen anything like it," Gibbs said. "I think you get a real sense of gravity when you see the faces of those that are grieving loved ones."
He added: "You can see the genuine anguish in their faces. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by what you're seeing."
Gibbs would not rule out future visits to the base to meet the returning dead, but he said he expects the president to continue to pay his respects to soldiers returning from war as he has done previously with visits to the wounded at Walter Reed hospital.