View photos of families receiving vehicles from U.S. Bank and Freedom Alliance.
MINNEAPOLIS — Every day has been Memorial Day for Veronica Morin since Aug. 22, 2009.
The holiday observed on the final Monday of May is dedicated to those who have died during military service and supporting Gold Star Families who grieve those tragedies.
Morin has known the challenge of raising two sons as a single parent and the pain of missing her husband, Army Sgt. Darby Morin.
"It's been a struggle to get through Memorial Day because Memorial Day for us and a lot of Gold Star families is every day," Morin explained recently. "It's a day when everybody gets to acknowledge it but don't really know the reality of having to live through that every day. That's our life. It's very sentimental, for sure."
Darby suffered fatal injuries in a vehicle rollover in Afghanistan while serving as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Specialist.
Morin knows she's not alone in losing a beloved hero.
Keely Schild was just 7 years old on Dec. 4, 2005, when her father, South Dakota Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Richard L. Schild, perished in Iraq.
Sisters Lilly Hammitt and Gwyneth McSween were only 5 and 3, respectively, when their father, Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph "Adam" McSween, was killed in action in Iraq on April 6, 2007.
The military vehicle in which Schild was riding was struck by an explosively formed projectile. A rocket struck the vehicle in which McSween was riding.
Morin, Schild, Hammitt and McSween have not let the tragedies limit their aspirations. Each is pursuing advanced education degrees with eyes cast toward career goals.
The Gold Star Families received help to get where their dreams will take them earlier this month thanks to the "Driven to Serve" joint initiative between U.S. Bank and Freedom Alliance. The partnership provides vehicles to military families in need.
Vikings analyst, former linebacker and coach Pete Bercich, who was named the 2021 Vikings Salute to Service Award Winner, emceed a ceremony outside U.S. Bank Stadium on May 11. Fellow Vikings Legends John Randle, Scott Studwell and Paul Krause drove the vehicles to the plaza before personally handing over the keys.
"It really is always a pleasure and honor when we get together with U.S. Bank to take care of military families and veterans because they've done so much for our country," Freedom Alliance President Tom Kilgannon told Vikings.com. "We have to give back and find unique and innovative ways to give back, and what we did here is provide vehicles to three families in honor of their fallen family members."
U.S. Bank employs more than 2,000 veterans, including National Guard and Reserve members.
"Our whole purpose as an organization is to power human potential," U.S. Bank Chief Diversity Officer Greg Cunningham said. "When I think about what these families have sacrificed, these Gold Star families have paid the ultimate price so we can have the freedoms we have. This is the work that U.S. Bank does for all of our stakeholders. These families need our support. They need all of us to rally around them so we can continue to live up to our promise as a nation."
Morin said her oldest son, Christian, described the day best when he said it felt "surreal."
"It's going to take a minute to sink in," Morin said. "It's very exciting."
Christian played football for six years and was set to get his learner's permit the following week. Morin is working on a human services degree at North Hennepin Community College and will begin an internship this fall.
"I don't think it would be possible to want to keep moving forward if we didn't have the support from people and from U.S. Bank and Freedom Alliance for thinking of us and remembering us and doing what they can to support us, because I've been doing this for 13 years on my own and having to look for my own resources," Morin said. "Having people reach out to me, it's a little bit of a stress relief. It helps big time."
Schild graduated from South Dakota State with a degree in interior design in May 2021 and is currently enrolled at Mitchell Technology College in pursuit of a degree in small business management. The native of Yankton, South Dakota, has a goal of owning her own interior design business near Omaha or Lincoln, Nebraska.
Hammitt and McSween look forward to using the new vehicle for some sister trips before Hammitt studies to be a chiropractor in Oregon and McSween heads to college in Iowa.
"I think we've mostly gotten close within the last two years. We started gaining a little bit more independence and are able to go out and do more stuff together, so I think that really helped," Hammitt said. "We like to go on our own little adventure to get a sweet treat or take the dog to the dog park by ourselves."
Schild and Hammitt have been awarded scholarships from Freedom Alliance, and McSween will benefit from that program this fall.
Freedom Alliance's scholarship program is assisting 600 students who have a parent who was killed or disabled while serving in the military.
"Since 9/11, we have provided more than $20 million to kids who have had a parent killed or disabled," Kilgannon said. "The first reason is practical, to provide financial assistance for the rising cost of a college education, but secondly and more important to many of our students, is each of the scholarships represents a hero and carries with it a message to that student to say your parent's sacrifice will never be forgotten by a grateful nation."
In appreciation of the sacrifices by the Gold Star Families, below is a little more information about each hero.
Darby, who was born on the Big River First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, enlisted in the Army as a transportation specialist in 2004. Darby underwent extensive training to become a CBRN Specialist, an assignment Kilgannon said demands "a lot of precision and study and exactness."
"He was a proud man, energetic and eager. He set goals and accomplished them. He wanted to be an example to others. He was always helping his fellow soldiers," Kilgannon said. "He especially wanted to be an example to young people to show them they can be what they aspire to be and to set goals beyond what is currently in your skill set and then go out and make it happen."
Veronica said she sees elements of Darby in their two sons.
"Remembering my husband and how he was, his spirit still inspires me as his wife," she said. "I know that he wouldn't want me to give up, and to continue to carry on the plans that we had for them, even though he's not here. I know that they're watching me, so I'm leading by example the way their dad did."
Kilgannon described Schild as "an amazing man" who grew up as the youngest of 10 children and joined the South Dakota National Guard in January 1992.
"He loved being part of a team that was working for a common purpose. He loved his soldiers, his men," Kilgannon said. "He protected them, helped them, motivated them, inspired them, trained them, but he was also able to joke with them and enjoy their company as human beings. He was such a great soldier, and part of it had to do with his early training."
A bridge in Yankton, South Dakota, that crosses the James River was named after Richard, who loved the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Minnesota Vikings and serving in the military.
"He loved what he did, and I am honored that he gave his life for our country," Keely said. "Having a dad in the military has taught me so much about respect for myself, my father, my family and for all those who have served or are serving in the military."
Adam served in the Navy for six years, enlisting in July 2001. He committed his service to learning how to find and defuse improvised explosive devices.
Adam posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
"He was a tremendous family man, had a great deal of faith. He was very strong in his faith and very active in his church and community," Kilgannon said.
He volunteered for the Red Cross and also appreciated special story-time moments of with his daughters.
"He really, really valued our country and wanted to protect it," Lilly said.
Gwyneth followed: "And protect others."
"He cared for others so, so much and willingly put his life on the line, going into the military and doing the dangerous job of EOD that he did," Lilly added.
Remembering the meaning
Minnesota National Guard Col. Eduardo Suarez said during the ceremony that Memorial Day should be revered with solemnity for the "noble and selfless, courageous men and women who have given their lives."
"As a nation, we owe a debt to our fallen heroes — one we can never repay. For those of us who serve in the military, we walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us who recognize it is our responsibility, duty and privilege to honor their sacrifice," Suarez said. "Today's event is another example at how Minnesotans remember those who are left behind and how we come to the aid of our military families.
"I was inspired by reading your personal stories and amazed at how you've lived your lives since the loss of your loved ones," Suarez told the families. "Your strength, your resiliency serves as an example for all of us to follow. The legacy of your loved ones continues for you, and I have no doubt they are proud of the paths you've taken."