At a dusty military base in northeastern Jordan, Specialist Kennedy Sanders drove bulldozers and road graders. When she had free time, she liked to spend it knitting, or feeding her sneaker-head habit by shopping online for rare pairs of Nike Dunks that she would make her mother unbox for her over FaceTime.
She spent a lot of hours joking and hanging out with her friend and platoonmate in their Army Reserve engineer unit, Specialist Breonna Moffett, who slept in a nearby rack and was hoping to celebrate returning home this summer by attending a Nicki Minaj concert.
The two were killed on Sunday, along with another soldier in their unit, Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, in what the Pentagon said was a drone attack by an Iranian-backed militia.
Both specialists were heavy-equipment operators doing a tough job in a hostile region. They were also young Black women from Georgia who loved hip-hop, laughing with friends and the Army. And they were representative of the type of Americans who increasingly serve in the military these days.
Black women account for about 36 percent of all enlisted women in the Army, compared with just 14 percent of the civilian female population, and they have an outsize presence in the highest enlisted ranks: More than half of the Army’s female sergeant majors are Black.
“You think of the military, most people think of men, but in fact African American women are heavily overrepresented,” said Brenda Moore, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who has studied the trend for decades.
The reasons are simple, she said. The Army was one of the first large employers to strip structural racism from its organization. Though other forms of racism persisted, the military in the Civil Rights era was one of the few places where Black women could find open doors and equal opportunity. Military service comes with benefits that can be rare in civilian blue-collar jobs, and recruits do not need to know someone or have a degree to be hired.
“The Army was seen as a good deal,” Ms. Moore said. “You could make something of yourself, provide for your family and do something honorable.”
Today, women like Specialist Sanders and Specialist Moffett fill the often overlooked ranks of supply, logistics and medical jobs that support combat units.
Specialist Moffett, 23, of Savannah, Ga., enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2019 right after high school, and was soon learning to drive construction equipment like bulldozers and road graders. She was the second woman in her family to join the Army. Her mother served, too.
It’s “basically a family tradition,” said Dereima Weaver, a friend since middle school.
Ms. Weaver said her friend was happy to have joined up. “She loved the adventure, and she loved the service,” she said.
In between her Army Reserve commitments, Specialist Moffett worked as a civilian home care provider for people with disabilities. The Savannah regional director of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia, Sharon Mitchell, described Specialist Moffett in a statement as “a deeply passionate advocate for the people we support.”
Her platoonmate Specialist Sanders, 24, came from Waycross, a town in the southeastern part of the state where the median household income is half the national average. Her longtime friend Bre Etheridge said in an interview that it was the kind of place where “some people get stuck and they can’t leave.”
“Others, if they’re motivated and want to do big things with their lives, like Kennedy, they go to college or join the service,” she said.
Specialist Sanders grew up on a street full of boys and with several brothers, and learned fast to keep up while playing football and basketball. In high school, she lettered in three sports. She tried college, but didn’t finish; back in Waycross again, she worked at a series of low-paying jobs, including as an assistant at the pharmacy in the city’s small downtown.
One of her best friends had joined the Marines and was learning to be a radiologist; after talking to her, Specialist Sanders decided to enlist in the Army. Soon she had health care coverage, retirement benefits and a marketable skill, and was earning education benefits to pay for another try at college.
“It was an adventure for her, too,” her mother, Oneida Oliver-Sanders, said in an interview. “She was making lifelong friends, getting promoted. She loved it.”
Specialist Sanders was so proud of her service that she went in uniform to visit schools and talk to students in Waycross.
“It meant a lot to her,” her mother said. “She wanted the kids to see that they had this opportunity, too.”
She said her daughter had found a kindred spirit in Specialist Moffett. Neither of them, Ms. Oliver-Sanders said, gave much thought to ending up in harm’s way.
When they deployed in August, they initially were told they might go to Syria, where the United States has about 900 troops. Specialist Sanders was apprehensive. But they learned they would be sent instead to Tower 22, a small base in Jordan near the Syrian border, which sounded safer.
At the base, Ms. Oliver-Sanders said, her daughter’s life seemed routine and quiet. A few attempted drone attacks on the base came up in phone conversations, she said, but mostly they talked about their favorite shows on Netflix or the latest pair of sneakers to add to Specialist Sanders’s collection.
Her enlistment was almost up, and she was thinking about her future. Deploying to a remote patch of desert with occasional drone strikes might have turned some people off. But on Saturday, when her mother last spoke to her, Specialist Sanders said she had decided to re-enlist in the Army.