From a military outpost in the Jordan desert, Spec. Breonna A. Moffett talked daily with her family in Savannah, Ga. Sometimes, her mother said, it was a quick call to wish her little sister a good day at school. Others, she’d joke about her dog, Simba, or work on a “Paw Patrol” coloring book with her 3-year-old nephew over FaceTime.
“She was so happy to do that for her nephew,” said her mother, Francine. “She always called home. She never really missed a day.”
Moffett, 23, was one of three U.S. soldiers killed early Sunday in a drone attack near Jordan’s borders with Syria and Iraq. The explosion rocked the troops’ living quarters — small, sparsely appointed shipping containers — after a drone slipped past air defenses as many were still in bed asleep. Upward of 50 others, including some infantrymen from the Arizona National Guard, were injured. At least one service member is in critical condition, officials said.
The incident underscores how Middle East deployments, long defined by the potential for danger, have grown even more perilous and unpredictable for those stationed far from a typical battlefield. Evolving tactics by U.S. adversaries, aided increasingly by inexpensive technology, have given rise to a wicked, widening array of threats that are hard to predict and counter.
President Biden has blamed Sunday’s violence on groups backed by Iran that have targeted U.S. military positions relentlessly since the fall, when Israel’s invasion of Gaza — and Washington’s considerable military support for the Jewish state — set off a ferocious wave of anti-American sentiment. Moffett and the other slain soldiers, Sgt. William J. Rivers, 46, and Spec. Kennedy L. Sanders, 24, are the first U.S. personnel killed by hostile fire since then.
The president has promised retribution.
Moffett, Rivers and Sanders were members of the same Army Reserve unit from Fort Moore, a massive installation in western Georgia that abuts the Chattahoochee River. Their deployment to Jordan was the kind of assignment that, despite its low profile, is essential for the U.S. military to function in a combat zone.
“We just have to plan around this being a possible outcome if we’re going to have troops deployed there, period,” said Allison Jaslow, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noting that similar attacks had occurred long before the war in Gaza. “I hate this is how we get attention on the fact that there are men and women across the globe fighting terrorism for us, but it has been the truth all along.”
The 718th Engineer Company went overseas in August, part of the Pentagon’s enduring mission to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group. Its members were posted, along with about 350 other Army and Air Force personnel, to Tower 22. The small, dusty facility is a key support base for a larger U.S. outpost, Tanf, about 25 miles away over the border in Syria.
Rivers served as an electrician, while Sanders and Moffett were construction engineers. Soldiers in those jobs typically operate bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy equipment.
Before joining the Army in 2019, Moffett had served as the drum major in her high school marching band and participated in a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program. She was close with her siblings and embraced caring for her dog, her mother said.
Rivers lived in Carrollton, Ga., an exurban Atlanta town of about 27,000, many of whom are veterans or have service members in their families. Carrollton Mayor Betty B. Cason said the town is “devastated” and will do whatever it takes to support the Rivers family. He had deployed to Iraq in 2018, Army officials said.
Although Cason did not know Rivers personally, she said he had a son who is in the band at the local high school.
“They are just your typical Carrollton family,” Cason said. “It’s just so sad. We are a very close-knit community.”
Over the past two days, Carrollton’s police force has been dispatched to the Rivers home to help prevent the media and others from bothering the family. Neighbors have taken them flowers and food. And Cason said the entire town stands ready to console and support the family in any way it can.
“You may not know them personally,” she said, “but they are part of your community and it has an effect.” Her community was stung by the loss of all three soldiers, even though Moffett and Sanders were from the other corners of the state. “It’s the ultimate sacrifice they gave for our protection,” she said.
Sanders, who lived in Waycross, Ga., had volunteered for the deployment, her family told the Associated Press. She volunteered as a youth soccer and basketball coach when not deployed.
In the community of 14,000, Sanders stood out, said Ulysses D. Rayford, the city manager. She was a former high school basketball star and the daughter of a Marine Corps veteran, he said.
“She was a valued member of this city, and everyone here recognizes her sacrifice,” Rayford said. He called Sanders “a very friendly person who had a lot of friends. She was a great spirited person,” Rayford added, “and this is a great tragic loss for us all.”
The Pentagon has said that Sunday marked the first attack on Tower 22, but the base had the look of a possible target. Militants have targeted numerous installations, including nearby Tanf, seemingly looking for vulnerabilities in American air defenses. In some cases, U.S. military officials have acknowledged that, despite their vigilance, some incoming drones had managed to get through.
On Sunday, it appears the weaponized drone was mistaken for an American aircraft returning to the installation.
Moffett’s mother said that while she and her daughter tended to keep their talks light and not discuss safety, her daughter appeared to be enjoying her time in Jordan.
“She was always smiling, always laughing, always with her friends,” Francine Moffett recalled.
Biden has spoken with the three families, the White House said Tuesday, and he intends to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Friday when their remains return home.
Rayford, the city manager in Sanders’s hometown, said local officials expect her remains will be transferred from Delaware to Waycross, where a funeral will be held. People there are devising plans to honor her, he said. On Monday, the Ware County Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation ordering all flags be lowered to half-staff until Sanders’s interment. During the monthly “First Friday” night in the center of the town, a moment of silence will be held.
The town has also decided to rename the street in front of Sanders’s family home in her honor, and June 30 — Sanders’s birthday — will be designated Kennedy Ladon Sanders Day.
“Every year, on her birthday, we will do a ceremony for her,” Rayford said.
Rayford said the entire town is grieving while they try to comprehend how short life can be. “It just makes you reflect on your own life and how precious your life is and how important it is to live it respectfully,” he added. “And she lived, although a short life, she lived a respectable life.”
The Army officials who visited Moffett’s family on Sunday to notify them of her death said that the attack remains under investigation, and that the service intends to provide them with more information after that work concludes, Francine Moffett said.
The notification process, she said, was “just like you see in the movies,” with soldiers in dress uniforms arriving at her home in Savannah.
“They just show up at your door,” she said. “My husband came upstairs and said, ‘Two guys in uniform are downstairs.’ And when he said that, I just knew. It’s just indescribable. You see it on TV and you hear about it, but you never want to experience it.”
Alex Horton, Monika Mathur, Tyler Pager and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.