DOVER, Del. — President Joe Biden performed one of the most solemn duties of his office Friday in attending the dignified transfer of the three American soldiers killed in Jordan this week in a drone strike that the U.S. has attributed to Iranian-backed militant groups.
The president and first lady Jill Biden first met with the families of the three fallen soldiers at the Center for Families of the Fallen at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. The Bidens then stood at the base of the aircraft that brought the the service members remains back to the U.S. as the chaplain gave a prayer, and rejoined the formation on the tarmac while a carry team from the fallen members’ military branch removed the service members’ flag-draped transfer cases from the aircraft.
The soldier's remains were then taken to a waiting van to transport them to a mortuary facility to be prepared for their final resting places.
After the ceremony concluded, Biden returned to Air Force I. He did not make any public remarks.
A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. service member who dies in a military operation abroad. The three reserve soldiers transferred on Friday were all from Georgia: Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, 46, of Carrollton; Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, of Waycross, who was posthumously promoted to sergeant; and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23, of Savannah, who also was posthumously promoted to sergeant.
Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill, Biden said of the soldiers, “They risked it all, and we’ll never forget the sacrifice and service to our country that the dozens of service members who were wounded in recovery now.”
This is the second dignified transfer Biden has attended since he took office. He attended the transfer of the remains of 13 service members killed in a 2021 terrorist attack outside an airport in Kabul during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also attended Friday’s event at Dover Air Force Base.
White House officials said this week that retaliation against the Iran-backed groups they say are responsible for Sunday's attack would be carried out at the “time and place” of the U.S.’ choosing and that it could last “weeks.”
In addition to the three soldiers who were killed, more than 30 other service members were injured when an explosives-packed drone struck the base near a shelter where some troops were sleeping, according to two U.S. officials.
Biden called the soldiers “patriots in the highest sense" in a statement announcing their deaths. He said that “their ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten by our nation.”
The president called Sanders' parents to deliver the news of her posthumous promotion.
During his call with Sanders' parents, Biden discussed his personal relationship with grief after he lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident and later after he lost his son Beau, who was also a veteran, to brain cancer.
He told Sanders' parents that "the day will come" when they think of their daughter and "you’ll smile before you cry."
"It takes a hell of a long time to get there," Biden said. "But I promise you, you’ll get there."
The media has not always been allowed to witness dignified transfers. In 2009, the Defense Department changed its policy to allow media access if the family of the military member killed consented.
In an interview this week, Shannon Slutman recalled how she decided to allow media coverage of her husband’s dignified transfer in 2019, after an explosive hit his convoy in Afghanistan. Marine Forces Reserve Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman died April 8, 2019, and was flown to the Dover Air Force base days later.
Media coverage, she said, enabled her husband's former colleagues in the New York Fire Department to witness his return, along with other Marines he served with in his 14 years in the service.
Slutman recalled that until she saw her husband’s transfer case, she thought: “Maybe they had the wrong information. Maybe he was coming home."
“You’re sitting there, and you can see the back of the plane. You see the casket sitting there, and I lost my stuff,” she said.
Slutman said she remembers more waiting after her husband’s transfer. She said it was several days before his body was turned over to her and their three young daughters, now a Gold Star family.
Slutman also described how the mortuary affairs team at Dover took impeccable care of her husband's body.
“When he was returned to me, and you saw the level of care that was given to him — they are unbelievable.”
Gary Grumbach and Aaron Gilchrist reported from Dover and Megan Lebowitz from Washington.