At a time when fewer people say they love their country, 24-year-old Kennedy Sanders and 20-year-old Jared Schmitz died for it. Joe Nocera for The Free Press.
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard,” place flags at the headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery ahead of Memorial Day, on May 23, 2024, in Arlington, Virginia. (Kent Nishimura via Getty Images)

America Still Has Heroes

At a time when fewer people say they love their country, 24-year-old Kennedy Sanders and 20-year-old Jared Schmitz died for it.

It was early afternoon, the Thursday before Memorial Day, and Oneida Oliver-Sanders and her husband Shawn Sanders were driving from Atlanta to their home in Waycross, Georgia, four hours away. They had been honored guests at the state’s annual Memorial Day remembrance, held every year by the steps of Georgia’s ornate capitol building.

“It was really nice,” Oneida said simply.

Throughout the hour-long ceremony, Oneida and Shawn heard their daughter Kennedy referred to as a “hero,” someone who “cared about others” and “wanted to serve her country.” And yes, that was really nice to hear—and the Sanderses took pride in those descriptions of their daughter. But, said Oneida, “it was a bittersweet moment to hear people call her a real American hero. Because I wish she was still here with me.” Her husband agreed: “I understand her contribution, being a veteran myself. But I would rather be selfish and have her with me than the reality of the situation.”

The reality of the situation is that Army Specialist Kennedy Sanders, age 24, was dead. In January, she and two other soldiers—part of a small unit deployed in Jordan—were killed when a drone strike hit their living quarters in the middle of the night. In addition to their deaths, some three dozen soldiers were injured. The three soldiers who were killed, all from Georgia, are the only combat casualties America has suffered this year.

The Sanders family has a long history of military service. Shawn spent four years in the Marines, including a stint in Iraq. Oneida counted off a half-dozen relatives who had been in the military, starting with her father, who was in the Navy. Polls show that there has been an enormous decline in the number of Americans who think of themselves as patriotic, from 70 percent in 1998 to 38 percent today. But a powerful sense of patriotism still runs through the Sanders family.

Still, when Kennedy told Oneida that she wanted to join the Army, her mother did not immediately embrace the idea. “I thought to myself, thank God we’re not involved in a war right now,” she said. “But I still had to warm up to the idea. I had wanted her to go to college, but that’s not the path she chose.” 

A U.S. Army team carries the remains of Kennedy Sanders to Dover Air Force Base on February 2, 2024. (Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images)

Kennedy’s parents told me that a large part of Kennedy’s original motivation was the opportunities the Army offered a black high school graduate, and a chance to earn more money than she could ever make in Waycross. “But once she joined,” said Oneida, “she really loved serving her country. She took pride in being a soldier.”

Learning that her daughter was going to be deployed to the Middle East made Oneida understandably nervous. The Middle East was home to so many of America’s enemies. “But she kept saying, ‘I’m not going to Syria, Mom. I’m going to Jordan,’ ” recalled Oneida. Her job entailed using heavy equipment to clear land. No guns involved.

In Jordan, Kennedy spoke to her mother every day—“sometimes two or three times a day,” said Oneida. They spoke about the new friends she was making in her unit, and they traded opinions about the latest Netflix shows. Maybe the Middle East wasn’t that dangerous after all.

And then came January 29. “I never felt she was threatened in any kind of way,” said Shawn. “I wasn’t watching much television at the time. I wasn’t on the internet, social media, anything like that. So I didn’t have any idea about the attack that had taken place. But it was all over the news prior to them coming to the door that morning.”

“Them,” of course, were the two soldiers who arrived at the Sanders home that day to deliver the awful news. “As soon as I saw them, I knew that I had lost my daughter,” said Shawn. “It was the worst day of my life,” said Oneida.

The Sanderses told me that the pain of Kennedy’s death has not even begun to lift. But they also said they understood the importance of what they had heard at the ceremony that morning—“what it means for our nation that she gave the ultimate sacrifice. The importance of the servicemen and servicewomen who serve our country, and those who give their lives for our freedoms.” 

Army Specialist Kennedy Sanders, who was posthumously promoted to sergeant. (Photo via U.S. Army Reserve)

It’s worth asking, this Memorial Day, whether the rest of us would be willing to follow Kennedy’s path. It’s not just that the percentage of Americans who consider themselves patriotic has dropped so dramatically. It’s also that, according to a 2022 Quinnipiac poll, only 55 percent of Americans say they would stay and fight if the U.S. were invaded. The rest, presumably, would flee. In a recent speech (reprinted in The Free Press), Douglas Murray said this was because a lot of young Americans have been “told from the cradle that their country was rotten from birth and had nothing going for it other than slavery, colonialism, and everything else.”

My own view is that the culprit is more likely to be the disintegration of the country’s social cohesion that has taken place since the Vietnam War, combined with the selfish, “I’ve got mine” ethos that now reigns. Regardless, the fact that so many Americans can’t envision themselves fighting for their country the way Ukrainians are fighting, the way Israelis are fighting, the way the Taiwanese would fight if they had to, is a harsh truth to contemplate this Memorial Day.

And all the more reason to be thankful for people like Kennedy Sanders. And also like 20-year-old Jared Schmitz, one of the 13 soldiers killed in late August 2021 when suicide bombs were set off outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as tens of thousands of Afghans attempted to flee their country before the Taliban took over.

Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jared M. Schmitz. (Photo via U.S. Marine Corps)

Jared’s father Mark, who lives in Wentzville, Missouri, told me many family members had been in the military; the ingrained patriotism of the Schmitzes scarcely needed to be discussed out loud. In any case, Jared was less influenced by his relatives than by his desire to prove himself. He couldn’t think of a better way than joining the Marine Corps. 

Mark wasn’t overly worried when his son was deployed to Afghanistan. “Jared was ecstatic to go. I followed the news very closely and things in Afghanistan didn’t seem horrific at the time, so I didn’t feel too worried that he was over there.” Unlike Kennedy Sanders, though, Jared wasn’t too big on calling home, and the last time Mark saw his son was in the United States maybe four months before he was killed. “I wish he would have called me more than he did,” Mark told me.

Mark blames Jared’s death on President Joe Biden for exiting Afghanistan so abruptly. “I mean, leaving Bagram the way he did in the middle of the night was the worst thing he could have done,” he said angrily. He also told me that even though nearly three years have passed since his son’s death, “there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. When I have my first cup of coffee I tell him good morning, and I tell him goodnight before I go to bed.”

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz is brought home after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jason Minto)

Mark himself was never in the military. But after Jared’s death, he put aside his anger and his sadness and decided to do something for America’s veterans. He started a foundation called Freedom 13, with the goal of buying up tracts of wilderness in all 50 states and building cottages that veterans and their families could use as a kind of retreat space. A place where they could clear their minds, refresh, and prepare to face the world again. The foundation’s website has a place where you can contribute to his effort. 

When I asked him why he had started Freedom 13, he replied, “I had a very close relationship with my son. And I knew he would kick my ass if I just sat around depressed all day. I knew I had to do something for his brothers and sisters in the military.”

It turns out there are all kinds of ways to be patriotic. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 13 soldiers were killed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan when the attack, in fact, happened at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The Free Press regrets the error.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The Free Press. Read H. R. McMaster’s tribute to Private First Class Joseph Knott in his Memorial Day piece, “The Soldiers I Remember.”

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