Captain John Russell Sanders USN (Ret.) passed away on January 24, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia due to a series of complications following a stroke last June. He was 71. He passed as he lived, assured he was in God’s hands. Services celebrating Captain Sanders’ life will be held at Crozet United Methodist Church in Crozet, Virginia on September 18th at 1:00. Columbarium inurnment will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at a future date.
JR, as all his friends knew him, was destined to be a Naval Aviator. JR was born on September 19, 1949 at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, son of Cmdr. Wilton Turner Sanders, USN (Ret.) and Virginia Jones Sanders. His father, also a Navy pilot, flew single-engine fighters off aircraft carriers in the 1940s and 50s. Living the life of a Navy “junior,” he traveled the world at a young age. JR graduated in 1966 from Norview High School in Norfolk, Virginia where he met the love of his life, Judy Longworth. He attended Duke University on a Naval ROTC scholarship, graduating in 1970 with a B.A. degree in Political Science and a passion for Duke basketball.
JR was designated a Naval Aviator in May 1972 and had a distinguished 30-year career in the Navy flying A-7E Corsair II jets, leading squadrons, commanding aircraft carrier operations and providing direction and counsel to senior naval operations. JR served on the USS SARATOGA, the USS FORRESTAL, the USS EISENHOWER and at the Pentagon as Analyst for the Director, Naval Warfare. In August 1990, while serving as Commander of VA-72, his squadron deployed immediately to the USS JOHN F. KENNEDY in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He led nightly bombing raids over Iraq, long, dangerous missions requiring two in-flight refuelings. All members of his squadron came home safely to their families.
In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, JR served as Assistant Battle Staff Director for Operation DENY FLIGHT and Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. Returning stateside in June 1997, he became the Senior Naval Advisor at the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama.
When he retired from the Navy in June 2000, he had nearly 5000 flight hours and 825 arrested landings over eight major carrier deployments. His military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, 3 Navy Meritorious Service Medals, 3 Air Medals, 2 Navy Commendation Medals with combat “V”, 2 Navy Achievement Medals, and various campaign awards and ribbons.
In 2001, JR and Judy moved to Crozet, Virginia where he was President and COO for Omega Aerial Refueling Services, Inc., providing air refueling support to Navy and Marine tactical fighters on training workups.
A lifelong disciple, JR turned his retirement energy and passion into lay leadership at the Crozet United Methodist Church. JR welcomed all, especially those he didn’t know, building community and sharing God’s love. He loved his family equally well, especially Judy, his wife of 50 years, his sons John and James, James’ spouse, Angela, and their son, Dylan, the apple of his grandfather’s eye.
Words fail to describe the essence of JR. As a boy, he was impish, eager, mischievous, energetic, independent, adventurous. JR lit up a room when he walked through the door. He was larger than life and magnetic. He drew people to him with his wide smile, his humor, his long, engaging stories, and his generosity. JR loved meeting people. He wanted to know you, for who you were. He was encouraging, sometimes exhorting and admonishing, always up-lifting.
Finally, JR was a serious man, devoted to family and friends, the well-being of those under his command, and his church community. Leadership came naturally to JR. He never took it for granted.
He left his mark on us and we are grateful for his light and love in this world.
Predeceased by his parents, Captain Sanders is survived by his wife, Judy Longworth Sanders, sons John R. Sanders Jr., of Brooklyn, NY and James R. Sanders (Angela Adams) of Kailua, HI and grandson Dylan James Sanders of Kailua HI; brothers Wilton T. Sanders, III (Sue Milch) of Madison, WI; Paul A. Sanders (Rose Ann Sullivan) of Reston, VA; Ernest D. Sanders II (Christine) of Falls Church, VA; sisters Laurie S. Lee (Tom) of Nashville, TN; Susan S. Byrd (Pat) of Brandon, MS; and nieces and nephews Annie, Bob, Kate, Paul, Virginia, Andrew and Matthew, who all adored “Unca JR”.
Memorials may be made to Crozet United Methodist Church, PO Box 70, Crozet, VA 22932, or the charity of your choice.