ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Hand over heart, Biden joins grieving families of US troops killed in Jordan

Three American service members killed in last weekend’s drone attack in Jordan return to US soil in solemn ceremony

US President Joe Biden, right, stands as an Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of US Army Sgt. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, of Waycross, Ga., at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Sanders was killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28. (AP/Matt Rourke)
US President Joe Biden, right, stands as an Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of US Army Sgt. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, of Waycross, Ga., at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Sanders was killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28. (AP/Matt Rourke)

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AP) — Standing solemnly under gray skies, US President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden joined grieving families at Dover Air Force Base on Friday to witness the return of three American service members killed in last weekend’s drone attack in Jordan.

It’s a ritual honoring fallen troops that is one of a commander-in-chief’s most somber duties.

With his gloved right hand over his heart, Biden looked on as the three transfer cases draped with American flags were carried the short distance from a C-5 galaxy military transport aircraft to a waiting van. The only words spoken during the 15-minute dignified transfer, aside from the commands as each case was carried, were from an Air Force chaplain’s brief prayer, asking God for “grace and mercy.”

The first transfer case held the remains of Sgt. William Jerome Rivers of Carrollton, Georgia. The movement was then repeated for Sgt. Breonna Moffett of Savannah and Sgt. Kennedy Sanders of Waycross. Once the seven-member, white-gloved carry team — composed of members of the US Army, in which Rivers, Moffett and Sanders served — placed the last of the cases in the van, they offered a final salute as the remains were transported to the mortuary facility at Dover.

Before the dignified transfer, the Bidens met privately with the families at the Center for Families of the Fallen on the base. The president had also spoken with them earlier this week to offer his condolences.

“This is not the homecoming for Kennedy I dreamed about,” Sanders’ father, Shawn, wrote in a Facebook posting Friday morning. “Now, I can’t stop reliving this nightmare.”

This combination of photos provided by Shawn Sanders, left, and the US Army, center and right, show from left to right, Spc. Kennedy Sanders, Sgt. William Jerome Rivers and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett. The three U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from Georgia were killed by a drone strike Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, on their base in Jordan near the Syrian border. (Shawn Sanders and US Army via AP)

In the post, Shawn Sanders said that “kindness and outpouring of love” was “the only thing holding me up” since his daughter’s death.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who walked with the assistance of a cane, and Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among the Defense Department and administration officials who joined the Bidens for the dignified transfer, a solemn movement conducted for US service members killed in action. Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, as well as Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents the home district of Moffett and Sanders, and Delaware Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons attended.

The soldiers were returned to American soil shortly before the US military responded to the deadly drone attack that American officials say was carried out by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias that includes the group Kataib Hezbollah. The US began a wave of retaliatory airstrikes Friday, targeting dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iran-backed militias.

In a statement Friday evening, Biden warned that the US response will “continue at times and places of our choosing.”

“Let all those who might seek to do us harm know this: If you harm an American, we will respond,” the president said.

Rivers, Moffett and Sanders were assigned to the 926th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade, based at Fort Moore, Ga. Sanders and Moffett were posthumously promoted to sergeant rank.

The deaths were the first US fatalities blamed on Iran-backed militia groups, who for months have been intensifying their attacks on American forces in the region following the onset of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

Separately, two Navy SEALs died during a January mission to board an unflagged ship that was carrying illicit Iranian-made weapons to Yemen.

“These service members embodied the very best of our nation: Unwavering in their bravery. Unflinching in their duty. Unbending in their commitment to our country — risking their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans, and our allies and partners with whom we stand in the fight against terrorism,” Biden said earlier this week. “It is a fight we will not cease.”

An Army carry team moves the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of US Army Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, Ga., during a casualty return at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Rivers was killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Rivers, Sanders and Moffett hailed from different corners of Georgia but were brought together in the same company of Army engineers. Sanders and Moffett, in particular, were close friends who regularly popped in on each other’s phone calls with their families back home.

Moffett had turned 23 years old just nine days before she was killed. She had joined the Army Reserves in 2019, but also worked for a home care provider to cook, clean and run errands for people with disabilities.

Sanders, 24, worked at a pharmacy while studying to become an X-ray technician and coached children’s soccer and basketball. She had volunteered for the deployment because she wanted to see different parts of the world, according to her parents.

Rivers, who was 46 years old and went by Jerome, joined the Army Reserve in New Jersey in 2011 and served a nine-month tour in Iraq in 2018.

The dignified transfer, in recent years, has become relatively uncommon as the US withdrew from conflicts abroad, most notably the war in Afghanistan where US involvement lasted two decades.

According to the Defense Department, no other service members have been killed as a result of hostile action since 2021. Thirteen service members were killed during the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan, when a suicide bomber at the airport’s Abbey Gate killed 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier. Nine service members were killed as a result of hostile action in 2020.

US President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Brown Jr., attend the dignified transfer of the remains of three US service members killed in the drone attack on the US military outpost in Jordan, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on February 2, 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Friday is the second dignified transfer Biden attended as president. In August 2021, he took part in the ritual for the 13 service members killed during the suicide bombing in Kabul. As vice president, Biden in 2016 attended a dignified transfer for two US soldiers killed in a suicide blast at Bagram Airfield. He also attended one as a senator in 2008 after a family requested his presence and the Pentagon gave him permission to do so.

The US government said this week that the Iran-backed militants had planned, resourced and facilitated the overnight drone attack. More than 40 troops were also injured in the assault at Tower 22, a secretive US military desert outpost whose location allows US forces to infiltrate and quietly leave Syria.

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