Saying goodbye to Staff Sgt. William Jerome Rivers: 'His smile just lit up the room'


CARROLLTON, Ga. (AP) — The flag-draped casket of Staff Sgt. William Jerome Rivers stood at the front of a church Tuesday as Georgia's governor joined the Army Reserve soldier's family, uniformed military officers and his pastor from New Jersey who made the trip to say farewell.

More than 100 mourners gathered at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton west of Atlanta as funerals began for three Georgia reservists killed last month in a drone attack on a U.S. base in the Middle East.

A 46-year-old Pennsylvania native, Rivers served in uniform for more than a decade after enlisting as an electrician. The Army said his overseas deployments included a nine-month tour in Iraq in 2018. Before moving to Georgia, he lived in New Jersey and attended the church of the Rev. James Betner, who remembered Rivers as “a faithful man who gave all.”

"I thank God for Will," said Betner, who traveled from Willingboro, New Jersey, to preside at Rivers' funeral. “I loved it when I saw him. He’d come in and his smile just lit up the room.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife sat in the church's front row along with military officers. Across the aisle, Rivers' wife, Darlene, sat in a hat and sunglasses with their son and Rivers’ two stepchildren.

Rivers' uncle, Larry Jenkins, said after the service that his nephew was loving and supportive with a good spirit, “a person who just has a calming effect.”

Outside the church, police cars and Georgia State Patrol cruisers stood by to escort the funeral procession to Georgia National Cemetery, where Rivers was to be buried alongside fellow military veterans in Canton just northwest of Atlanta. An honor guard of Army soldiers served as pallbearers.

A Jan. 28 drone strike on a U.S. military outpost in Jordan killed Rivers as well as Sgt. Kennedy Sanders and Sgt. Breonna Moffett. They were assigned to the Army Reserve’s 926th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade, based at Fort Moore in west Georgia.

A funeral for Sanders is scheduled Saturday at Ware County Middle School in her hometown of Waycross. Moffett lived in Savannah, where funeral arrangements are still pending.

A photo slideshow played during Rivers' church service showed him working with fellow Army engineers in hardhats. He was a skilled engineer who served selflessly, said Brig. Gen. Todd Lazaroski, commander of the Army Reserve's 412th Theater Engineer Command.

“Staff Sgt. Rivers was more than a fellow soldier," Lazaroski told those attending the funeral. "He was a friend, a confidante and a beacon of positivity. In the darkest of times, his infectious smile and wisdom were a source of comfort and inspiration to his fellow soldiers.”

Friends, former classmates and co-workers have gathered to remember the slain soldiers while awaiting their final homecoming in Georgia.

In Waycross, where 24-year-old Sanders worked at a pharmacy and helped coach children's basketball and soccer teams, residents gathered at a downtown park for a moment of silence shortly after the overseas attack.

Moffett, who turned 23 barely a week before she died, has been honored in Savannah with a ceremony at Windsor Forest High School, where she was a drum major and JROTC cadet before graduating in 2019. A candlelight vigil was held by Moffett's employer, United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia, where she helped teach cooking and other skills to people with disabilities.

The deaths were the first U.S. fatalities blamed on Iran-backed militia groups after months of intensified attacks on American forces in the region since the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

More than 40 troops were also injured in the drone attack at Tower 22, a secretive U.S. military desert outpost that enables U.S. forces to infiltrate and quietly leave Syria.