WAYCROSS — In the packed auditorium of the middle school where barely a decade ago she was still a student, Army Reserve Sgt. Kennedy L. Sanders was remembered at her funeral Saturday as a friend, a joyful but gritty competitor in sports and card games, and a dedicated soldier.

Her casket, draped in an American flag, sat in front of a stage lined by a forest of decorative white orchid, hydrangea and cherry blossoms. Giant portraits of her rose from either side of the display.

Sanders, 24, was one of three reservists from Georgia killed Jan. 28 in a drone attack on a remote base in Jordan, where she had been deployed since last fall. Saturday’s memorial service all but filled the 1,200-seat Ware County Middle School auditorium in this South Georgia city of 14,000 residents.

Fellow soldiers recalled Sanders’ courage, her loving personality, and her willingness to volunteer for tasks few wanted to do, including learning to operate earth-moving equipment to help build roads and shelters.

“Behind her smile was a fierce determination,” said Col. Jeffrey Dulgarian, commander of the 926th Infantry Brigade, adding that she “tackled her responsibility with vigor and skill.”

Even when battling it out in a friendly game of Uno, “Kennedy always gave it her all,” remembered Brig. Gen. Todd Lazaroski, commander of the Army Reserve’s 412th Theater Engineer Command and Sanders’ commanding general.

That spirit also surfaced on the basketball court, where the diminutive Sanders, nicknamed “Munchkin” or “Munch” by friends, routinely outmaneuvered larger troops, said Dulgarian.

Shabria Wiggins, a former high school classmate of Sanders, told about a time during their senior year when they all got together to get their fingernails painted at a spa. Sanders wasn’t interested, and asked instead, “Can we go play basketball?”

Sanders’ former basketball coach, Mandy Lingenfelter, remembered Sanders, a point guard, as a floor general for Ware County High’s Lady Gators. But one with a softer side.

“It was hard for me to yell at her,” Lingenfelter said, “because she was always smiling. … She had pure joy. She put Jesus first, others second and herself last.”

Then to cheers from those assembled, Lingenfelter addressed Sanders: “Your Lady Gators won the region championship for you last night.” The female varsity team defeated Statesboro High by a score of 47-36.

Earlier Friday, at a visitation that spanned seven hours, hundreds of mourners filed into C.C. McCray City Auditorium. Sanders’ casket was enshrined in a small, makeshift room, its walls fashioned from royal-blue curtains, lending the scene an intimate, reverential privacy. An American flag in the background hung shrouded in white flowers.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp spoke privately with Sanders’ parents before paying their respects at Sanders’ casket on Friday. The governor, asked what he had said to Sanders’ parents, later told reporters, “That we appreciated her service … and let them know that this is a grateful state.”

On the brown-brick auditorium’s facade, a pair of towering banners bearing photographs of Sanders in uniform stood sentry, flanking the front doors, greeting visitors as they entered the hall.

Sanders, of the 718th Engineer Company, 926th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade, from Fort Moore near Columbus, joined the service in 2018, a year after graduating from Ware County High School.

She had attended college for a while, worked at a Lowe’s and a local pharmacy, and volunteered as a basketball coach at her former middle school. Lately she had set her sights on a career in the Army.

On a previous deployment, she was stationed in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

On Friday night, in Waycross, on Eads Street, which will soon bear a new name, Kennedy Sanders Way, her parents’ house was packed with neighbors and loved ones.

In the days and weeks after their daughter’s death, the parents had talked to scores of reporters by phone and welcomed others into their living room. News video of them receiving a phone call from President Joe Biden offering his condolences was widely viewed on social media.

“We just want to share her with the world. Her light,” said Oneida Oliver-Sanders late Friday, explaining why she and her husband have grieved their daughter so publicly.

Their hometown and those closest to them have held the family in an almost nonstop embrace since they received word of Sanders’ death some 6,500 miles away along the edge of the Syrian border.

The deadly drone strike happened at a dot of an outpost known as Tower 22, roughly six miles from the western edge of Iraq and 180 miles inland from the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Two other Georgia reservists were killed in the attack.

A funeral for Sgt. Breonna Moffett, 23, was held Saturday in Savannah. Moffett’s family requested that media not be present. Locals also paid their respects on Thursday, lining a motorcade route as Moffett’s remains traveled from Savannah’s airport through the city to a funeral home.

Staff Sgt. William Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, was laid to rest Tuesday. At a memorial service in his hometown, fellow soldiers recalled the infectious smile and the calmness of the reservist, who also had been deployed in Iraq after enlisting in 2011.

Sanders and a close friend of hers back home, Emily Middleton, had plans to get matching tattoos upon Sanders’ return from her Middle Eastern tour.

Middleton’s tattoo was to read: “No Matter What.” Sanders, because she traveled more, would get a tattoo bearing a complementary three-word message.

In the days after Sanders was killed, Middleton went ahead with the plan. But she switched up the inscriptions. She chose the one Sanders was to get.

Now inked on Middleton’s forearm is a tiny purple heart. Above it are the words “No Matter Where.”

Sanders’ father, Shawn, a former Marine, has said his daughter’s “legacy is gonna outlive all of us.” He has mentioned how emotional it will be having the neighborhood lane he lives on named for his child. “Every time I turn on this street,” he said, “I will remember my daughter.”

Soon after Sanders died, her parents told a reporter how it was as if they were living, as her father put it, “underwater.”

“It feels like it’s been a lifetime already,” her mother said.

Earlier this week in a Facebook post, Oliver-Sanders wrote that her daughter’s death seemed like a bad dream.

“I’m still waiting on someone to call and say it was a mistake,” she wrote. “Still waiting on her to text back and say the Wi-Fi wasn’t working so she couldn’t text me back sooner. Still waiting to wake up from this nightmare.”

On Saturday afternoon, Army Reserve Sgt. Kennedy L. Sanders’ casket was driven from the middle school auditorium across town and carried into Oakland Cemetery on a horse-drawn carriage.