BROOKINGS — Keely Schild was only 7 years old when she lost her father in the Iraq War. The Yankton woman was left not only with grief but with an uncertain future.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Rich Schild, her father, died in a Dec. 4, 2005, explosion while traveling in Baghdad. He was the platoon sergeant who took the place of a gunner — who was going on leave — in a Humvee while going out on patrol.
Afterwards, Rich’s widow, Kay, moved from Tabor to Yankton with their two children, Keely and Koby. The family persevered with the support of family and friends.
After high school, Keely dreamed of attending South Dakota State University and majoring in interior designs. However, she feared a college education might prove unaffordable or a long-term burden.
"My biggest fear going through college is having massive loans because of school," she told the Press & Dakotan.
Those fears have greatly eased, thanks to assistance from an expected source.
The Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation (Fallen Patriots) provides college scholarships and educational counseling to surviving military children. The non-profit organization hopes to locate the 20,000 surviving military children who could use its help.
Schild is one of those Gold Star Children, a name given to those who have lost a parent in military action.
Since 2002, Fallen Patriots has provided more than $21.4 million to more than 1,000 students throughout their undergraduate studies. April has been designated the Month of the Military Child, and Fallen Patriots is using the month to honor those children.
Schild said she has received both financial and emotional support from the organization.
"With their support, it allows me to pursue my dream of becoming an interior designer," she said. "I appreciate all that Fallen Patriots does to encourage Gold Star Children, like my brother and myself, to fulfill our educational goals."
The special month also allows her an additional opportunity to honor her father, whose example continues to inspire her.
Although she was a young child at the time, Keely vividly remembers details of her father’s 2005 deployment. He was serving with the 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery unit of the Yankton-based South Dakota National Guard unit. During the fateful December patrol, his squad was hit by an explosively formed projectile (EFP) two miles south of FOB Rustamiyah in eastern Baghdad.
Schild was killed in action. His driver later died of injuries, and one other soldier was killed in another Humvee.
The Schild children received the devastating news from military visitors to the family’s home.
"It was late at night when we heard the doorbell. My brother and I ran to open the door and you could see the top of their hats. That’s when my mom knew something was wrong," Keely said. "They said my dad got hit by a roadside bomb and passed away. At the time, when we heard about his death, I didn’t fully understand what had happened because I was only 7.
"After almost 13 years, there are days that seem like it’s been forever since my dad passed away. But then there are days that feel like it was just yesterday."
The family immediately turned to others for support.
"Right after we heard the news, my mom called my grandma and grandpa, Bill and JoAnn Krejci, in Yankton," Keely said. "They came to Tabor to comfort us in this terrible time. We received enormous support from both sides of the family and the community as well."
While Rich was no longer with them, the family continued to draw strength and courage from his example, Keely said.
"My dad was the most driven and hardworking man I have ever met because he put his life on the line so I could live mine free," she said. "There has never been a time when I have doubted that taking care of our family was not his top priority. He always worked hard no matter what he did, and that is something I have always admired about him."
Rich’s drive and work ethic inspired those around him and made them better people, Keely said.
"As I look back at all of the things my dad has done for me and all of the things he has taught me, I know that I would not be half the person I am today if it had not been for him," she said. "I wish every day that he was still here to watch me succeed and encourage me to do my best, but I could not be more grateful to have been raised by such an inspiring, intelligent man."
While she still feels him close to her, Keely admits it’s been difficult without her father.
"It’s been one of the biggest challenges, growing up without my dad. I’ll never have him here to see me graduate, get married or when my kids are born," she said. "The truth is, my life without my dad will never feel as complete as it did when he was here. However, the most difficult part about my life, especially in college where I created many new friends, has been explaining the loss of my dad anytime the conversation of parents comes up."
Keely recalls many cherished moments, including Rich taking the two children to the fireworks stand for a major shopping spree. Rich loved fireworks, which prompted Tabor friends to start an annual fireworks display in his honor.
Keely and her family have attended every Rich Schild Memorial Fireworks since it started June 2007. The annual fireworks display has also become a time when many Charlie Battery (now Bravo Battery) members gather from the Yankton unit.
While Rich lost his life in battle, Keely holds no doubts her father died while doing what he loved and strongly believed. The ability to serve with his older brother, Brooks, made the military and the deployment even more special.
"My dad had a passion for what he did and wouldn’t trade it for the world. He loved his military brothers and keeping his family safe. He truly enjoyed wearing the uniform and leading others," Keely said. "My dad loved serving with Brooks and would joke around with him every once in a while, which was very common for my dad to do. I know it made him happy to have his older brother by his side along the way."
Toward the end, Rich and Brooks had the opportunity to spend even more time together, Keely said.
"Five days before my dad’s death, on his 40th birthday, the battery moved around and my dad was moved into a room with Brooks," she said. "Although he was close to everyone in the unit, his best friend was still his older brother. My dad loved the camaraderie of his fellow military brothers and their families, and he appreciated them every single day."
While the past 13 years have carried struggles, Keely said her family has done well and marked milestones along the way.
"My mom, Kay, is doing well. She had to take on the father role as well as being a mother. I know it has not been easy for her but we all take one day at a time, and I thank her for all she has done," Keely said. "I have one younger brother, Koby, who is 18 years old. My brother will graduate this May from Yankton High School and will attend Mitchell Technical Institution this fall for electrical construction and maintenance."
The adversity following Rich’s death served to create a tight-knit family, Keely said.
"My family has become closer and we share a bond that not many families have, and I’m grateful for that," she said.
In many ways, Rich’s early death forced Keely to grow up faster than most children.
"Over the years and dealing with the thought of my dad passing, I have gained the strength and determination to live a life to the fullest as my dad would want me to do," she said. "I’ve enjoyed many activities throughout my life that include soccer, softball, volleyball, track and field, and dance."
Keely also pursued her dream of higher education and a career.
"Right now, I’m just finishing up my freshman year up at South Dakota State University, where I’m majoring in interior design," she said. "I decided to choose this major because my family has always pushed me to do what I love, and I have always just loved designing and decorating spaces."
After graduating from SDSU, she wants to pursue a job in the Omaha/Lincoln, Nebraska, area as a residential interior designer.
Keely remains grateful for the Fallen Patriots’ scholarship, which she said has made her education a reality. She wants to develop even closer ties to the organization and others sharing the same life experience.
"It means a lot to me that April is the designated month for children of fallen soldiers," she said. "I haven’t yet met any kids through the Fallen Patriots, but I hope to later in the future.
"We all share a special part of our life together and share similar experiences that kids our age do not understand."
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