A Soldier’s Final Journey Home


“This is what they sent us,” Oneida Sanders said, kneeling beside a heavy wooden chest in her living room. “These are Kennedy’s things.”

Sgt. Kennedy Sanders’s belongings were shipped home to her parents after she was killed: Dog tags, identification cards, Polaroids of her family. Gold jewelry and a quarter that appeared to be stained with blood.

The items offered a glimpse into the person, soldier and daughter that Kennedy was and who she had hoped to become.

Kennedy was serving on a U.S. military outpost in Jordan in January when an Iran-backed militia launched a drone attack on the base. Less than 24 hours later, two uniformed service members showed up on the doorstep of Oneida and Shawn Sanders in the small town of Waycross, Ga.

Ms. Sanders wasn’t home that morning, but her husband, Shawn, was. He told her to return home right away and then began calling family members and friends, asking them to come to the house.

When Ms. Sanders arrived, one of the soldiers read a statement informing them that their 24-year-old daughter had been killed in action.

“As soon as I got into the house and saw the two officers standing in the living room, I collapsed,” Ms. Sanders said.

The last time Ms. Sanders heard her daughter’s voice was the day before she was killed. They had talked about the type of Girl Scout cookies Kennedy wanted her mother to send and her decision to re-enlist in the Army.

Kennedy’s unit, a team of engineering specialists trained to deploy on short notice and build infrastructure like roads and airstrips, had arrived in Jordan shortly after the war between Israel and Hamas began in October. The soldiers were supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, a mission to combat the Islamic State, which has claimed the lives of 113 U.S. service members since it began in August 2014, according to the latest Defense Department casualty report.

Sgt. William Jerome Rivers and Sgt. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett were also killed in the drone strike in Jordan.

Kennedy’s parents have grappled with the pain of outliving their child ever since. “It’s heavy,” Ms. Sanders said, pausing briefly, her voice notably changed when she spoke again. “It’s heavy.”

Family had always been important to Kennedy. Even as an adult she preferred being home. From a young age, she looked after her twin brother, Kendall. She was protective of her younger brother, Christian.

She was known in Waycross for her athletic ability, leadership, work ethic and style. She was polite but didn’t have time for small talk. But when people got to know her they usually found she was an extrovert, the life of the party, Ms. Sanders said.

During a dignified transfer in February at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Kennedy’s flag-draped transfer case was the last of the three carried off a military cargo plane. President Biden stood, hand over heart, on the cold, wet tarmac to pay his respects as the commander in chief.

Mr. and Ms. Sanders said that Mr. Biden met with them privately at Dover and expressed a genuine understanding of their tremendous pain as he, too, had lost a child.

Mr. Biden posthumously promoted Kennedy from specialist to sergeant and awarded her a purple heart, one of the military’s most distinguished decorations.

After the dignified transfer at Dover, Kennedy’s remains were returned to Waycross.

Kennedy’s parents did not see their daughter’s body until just before the public viewing on Feb. 16. The family still has not received the official autopsy report from the Defense Department, leaving them to speculate about the precise cause of her death.

“You know, if you think about an explosion victim, your mind goes all types of directions,” Ms. Sanders said. “I didn’t know what was coming back to us in that box.” Seeing her daughter’s body in one piece “was a relief for me,” she said.

People from Waycross and the surrounding area filed into the viewing for Kennedy. For hours, friends and neighbors approached Ms. Sanders in tears to hug her, pray with her and offer their condolences.

“I don’t feel strong,” she said, referring to the day of the viewing. “I feel like, at any moment, I can have a breakdown, at any second, but it is a very deliberate and conscious effort just to get up every day and shower, brush my teeth, do basic things.”

The next day hundreds of people attended Kennedy’s funeral service at the local middle school. Ms. Sanders was overwhelmed with emotion as she and her family slowly made their way down the aisle to see Kennedy one final time.

As the service ended, pallbearers placed Kennedy’s flag-draped casket in the back of a horse-drawn carriage to be taken to Oakland Cemetery.

At graveside, service members folded the flag, and an officer knelt to hand it to Mr. Sanders, himself a former Marine.

Kennedy and her family — her father, cousins and uncles — dedicated their lives to the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

The family has found that it is not alone, as the city of Waycross has come together to preserve Kennedy’s memory.

The street she grew up on is now named after her, a sprawling mural has been painted on the side of a business downtown, and scholarships in Kennedy’s name have been created. Her name was recently engraved on the Waycross Veterans Memorial.

Months after her death, a task as simple as opening the mail can bring the harsh reality of Kennedy’s absence rushing back, as it did in April when Ms. Sanders received a letter from the county election office informing her that her daughter would be removed from the list of registered voters.

“Whenever you deal with this, you are in disbelief and shock for a long time,” said Ms. Sanders. “But every now and then, you know, something happens that makes you realize that it’s really real, and she is really gone.”

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