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Servicemembers and civilians line the road to the Bagram Air Base flight line as they wait for the procession of Humvees carrying the coffins of the 18 victims of Wednesday’s helicopter crash near Ghazni, to a U.S. Air Force C-17, seen in the background.

Servicemembers and civilians line the road to the Bagram Air Base flight line as they wait for the procession of Humvees carrying the coffins of the 18 victims of Wednesday’s helicopter crash near Ghazni, to a U.S. Air Force C-17, seen in the background. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Hundreds of soldiers, airmen and Marines stood shoulder to shoulder Saturday to say farewell — and pay respect — to 18 fellow Americans killed Wednesday in a helicopter crash.

The death toll increased from 16 to 18 after the military found the remains of two more American soldiers among the wreckage.

Sailors, civilians and servicemembers from other countries were interspersed along the route. Those in uniform stood in solemn attention as each Humvee carrying a flag-draped coffin slowly passed by on its way to a C-17 Globemaster waiting on the taxiway.

The brief fallen comrade ceremony was the first base-wide event marking the deaths of the servicemembers and civilians who died Wednesday after their CH-47 Chinook helicopter went down near Ghazni, apparently after a severe change in weather.

More bad weather initially hampered efforts by the mortuary affairs team based at Bagram to reach the site of the accident, about 80 miles southwest of Kabul. The team drove to the site Friday and transported the remains back to Bagram.

The bodies were to be flown to Dover Air Force Base, Del., for positive identification, according to Navy Lt. Cindy Moore, a spokeswoman for the combined forces in Afghanistan.

Moore said the 18 remains were of 15 servicemembers and three U.S. civilian contractors. She said their names will not be released until tests on the remains are completed in Dover.

The roads around base were cleared of traffic Saturday morning before the ceremony started. Servicemembers were told where to line up via the “Giant Voice” intercom system that makes frequent announcements across the base.

Troops offered salutes to the coffins in each vehicle. The vehicles passed through the runway checkpoint and continued along until coming to a stop next to another large group of servicemembers standing in rows near the tail of the C-17.

The lines of troops on either side of the road broke apart after the convoy passed, but dozens of servicemembers and civilians walked past the normally closed checkpoint to see the rest of the ceremony.

The coffins were unloaded simultaneously and carried behind a color guard onto the plane. The plane’s ramp closed. The Humvees peeled off in two lines in a sort of formation of their own. Most of the crowd dispersed.

Some people lingered behind, tears in their eyes. Hugs were exchanged and shoulders were offered as support.

A few minutes later, a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs flew off on a mission and traffic resumed on the base roads.

Army officials in Vicenza, Italy, said on Friday that four of the dead are believed to be from units based there. However, members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, have not been able to communicate with their families since the crash, family members said on Saturday.

At least six wives arrived at Vicenza’s Family Support Center on Thursday, crying and concerned that their husbands were on the helicopter, said Rita Bonamego, who heads the center.

Bonamego had nothing to tell them other than what she learned on the news, she said.

The center stayed open all night Thursday and fielded about 20 phone calls from family members seeking more information.

Families of members of the 173rd have flooded an Internet message board devoted to the brigade with messages seeking more information from one another.

Russ Rizzo in Vicenza, Italy, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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