As Georgia military family grieves, President Biden tries to comfort

WAYCROSS — A father’s promise was fulfilled in a call from the president.

Shawn Sanders was in his living room Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours after learning of the death of his 24-year-old daughter, Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, in a weekend drone attack on U.S. service members in Jordan. Sitting next to him was his wife and Kennedy’s mother, Oneida Oliver-Sanders.

The phone rang.

“This is Joe Biden,” said the voice on the other end.

The president had called to offer his condolences.

“Shawn,” the president said, “I wish I didn’t have to make this call. … I know there’s nothing anybody can say or do to ease the pain. I’ve been there.”

“Yes, sir, we understand,” Oliver-Sanders, 48, said.

“I just want you to know,” the president said, “that you’re in my prayers and my heart.”

The call from Biden was one of many the family has received in recent days. Words of support have poured in, especially from those close to the daughter affectionately nicknamed “Munchkin.”

She collected sneakers by the droves and had at least 100 pairs. Sometimes, she ordered them while she was abroad and had them delivered to her parents’ home. Then she’d call her folks on Facetime to see them unboxed.

Kennedy graduated high school in 2017 and attended Valdosta State University before leaving school and going off to Army boot camp a year later. When she was home from the Reserves, she worked as a community basketball coach, an assistant’s role, at Waycross Middle School. She also worked at a pharmacy and at Lowe’s, where she was employee of the year in 2022.

Since her death, local officials have privately discussed ways of honoring her. Some are in the works. On Monday, county commissioners issued a tribute, a proclamation stating she exemplified “the highest ideals of honor, duty and selflessness.”

“Kennedy is a blessed person,” said her father. “Now she’s blessing us in ways that we can’t imagine.”

On Tuesday morning, the president almost surely knew nothing of the promise that Shawn Sanders had made to his daughter when she was considering enlisting fulltime in the Army, making a career of it.

Shawn, 51, a former Marine, promised her she would climb the ranks if she stuck with it.

Kennedy had always been so aggressive playing high school sports for the Ware County Gators. Soccer, softball, basketball. She was fearless, a go-getter, ultra-energetic, a high-achiever, a free spirit.

Shawn was sure she’d have a successful career, that it would just take time. Kennedy had, several times and to no avail, put in her papers for a promotion to sergeant.

Now the president was on the phone. Calling Waycross, a city that’s home to 14,000 people and located in this state’s largest county, landwise. Biden said he knew that part of the world at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

“And by the way,” the president said, “we’re promoting her posthumously to sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir,” Shawn Sanders said.

“You don’t know how much that means to us,” the fallen soldier’s mother said.

Then the parents sobbed. A family friend held the phone.

Shawn Sanders would later say the moment was bittersweet, understandably. His little girl was not there to know of her promotion.

The president offered words of comfort, mentioning the deaths of his own children.

“You won’t believe it now, and hope (you) won’t be angry when I say it, but a day will come … when you walk by a park Kennedy played in, or you open a closet and you smell the fragrance of her clothing or something like that, and you’ll smile before you cry,” Biden said. “That’s when you know you’re gonna make it. It takes a hell of a long time to get there, but I promise you you’ll get there. I know that is no consolation now.”

Oliver-Sanders, with tears in her eyes, said, “I just appreciate your words.”

Later, the president spoke of “Sgt. Sanders” and said, “God, the picture I’m looking at, she had such a beautiful smile. God love her.”

After the president hung up, Oliver-Sanders wiped her eyes. On a coffee table in front of her sat a framed picture of her daughter in uniform.

For an instant, the room fell quiet. Then someone said, “Sergeant Sanders!”