President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden joined grieving families at Dover Air Force Base on Friday to honor the three American service members killed in a drone attack in Jordan — a solemn ritual, called a dignified transfer, that has become relatively uncommon in recent years as the U.S. has withdrawn from conflicts abroad.
The Bidens, joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived at the base Friday afternoon to witness the transfer of the remains of the troops killed in Sunday's assault.
The Bidens met privately with the families before the ceremony.
The service members killed Sunday were all from Georgia — Sgt. William Jerome Rivers of Carrollton, Sgt. Kennedy Sanders of Waycross and Sgt. Breonna Moffett of Savannah. Sanders and Moffett were posthumously promoted to sergeant rank.
The deaths were the first U.S. 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."
Sanders' father, Shawn, in a post on Facebook Friday morning said that "kindness and outpouring of love" was "the only thing holding me up" since his daughter's death.
"This is not the homecoming for Kennedy I dreamed about," he said in the post. "Now, I can't stop reliving this nightmare."
At Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast at the Capitol, Biden acknowledged Rivers, Moffett and Sanders by name, again vowing to never forget their sacrifice to the nation.
"They risked it all," the president said.
Rivers, Sanders and Moffett hailed from different corners of Georgia but were brought together in the same company of Army engineers that was based in Fort Moore. 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 Dover ceremonies have been increasingly uncommon as the U.S. has withdrawn from conflicts abroad, most notably the war in Afghanistan where U.S. involvement lasted two decades.
According to the most recent statistics available from the Defense Department, no service members were killed as a result of hostile action in 2022. Thirteen service members were killed as a result of hostile action the year prior 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.
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 U.S. soldiers killed in a suicide blast at Bagram Airfield. He also attended one as a senator in 2008 after the family requested his presence and the Pentagon gave him permission to do so.
The U.S. government said this week that the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias that includes the group Kataib Hezbollah, had planned, resourced and facilitated the overnight drone attack. While Biden and White House officials have stressed that they don't want a broader war with Iran, the administration has also warned that it will respond to the deadly assault.
More than 40 troops were also injured in the Sunday drone attack at Tower 22, a secretive U.S. military desert outpost whose location allows U.S. forces to infiltrate and quietly leave Syria.
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