Before this summer, college students Lilly Hammitt and Kesauna “Kiki” Patterson had never met. Yet, they’re connected by a common bond. Both are Gold Star children whose fathers were killed while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, they’ll share another connection — providing input on a future war memorial in our nation’s capital.
That opportunity came thanks to their involvement with Freedom Alliance, a charitable organization that provides scholarships to children whose parents were killed or disabled while serving.
The nonprofit has awarded more than $20 million in scholarships. Patterson, a 20-year-old junior at Columbus State University who studies psychology, is just one of many recipients.
Patterson lost her father, Army Staff Sgt. Esau Patterson Jr., in 2004, when she was just 2 years old.
“We were living in Germany at the time, and he got deployed,” Patterson recalled. “He was one of eight soldiers killed when a car pulled up to his unit while they were doing a reconnaissance mission in Baghdad. The driver detonated a bomb.”
Patterson, her brother and mom were left behind. She admits she has no memories of their life as a family of four and only a few pictures.
“I’ll be honest, growing up my mom was doing it all, playing both mom and dad,” she said. “But losing my dad didn’t really bother me until I was in middle and high school, and they had these father-daughter dances. That’s when I felt like I was missing out on something.”
Hammitt, 20, lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her mom and brother. She was just 5 years old when her father, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Adam McSween, was killed near Kirkuk in northern Iraq when a rocket hit his vehicle on Apr. 6, 2007.
“We were stationed at Whidbey Island, and my bedroom window faced the street. I remember the day the men came; they got out of the car to come to our front door, and they were all wearing fancy uniforms.”
Hammitt recalled that her father and mother knew some risks came with his job as an EOD tech.
“He wanted to go out and do that dangerous job and protect people,” she said.
Patterson and Hammitt were among a dozen Gold Star children (and Freedom Alliance scholarship recipients) treated to a few days in Washington D.C. this summer.
“In addition to the scholarship, we aim to provide mentorship and to connect the students with others who share this unique experience,” said Tom Kilgannon, president of Freedom Alliance.
“Even spending just a few days together, I felt accepted and a part of something by meeting kids my age who were in my same situation,” Patterson said.
“We had fun moments like dinners out as well as more quiet, respectful moments like when we visited Arlington National Cemetery,” Hammitt added.
One of the activities on the agenda was a ruck walk on the National Mall, an opportunity that came when Kilgannon reached out to Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation. The organization recently received congressional approval to construct a memorial dedicated to those who served and sacrificed in America’s longest war.
“I said, ‘We’re bringing our students into town. It might be neat for them to hear about this memorial,’” said Kilgannon.
“It’s a 24–step process to build a national war memorial in Washington D.C.,” Rodriguez said.
The foundation is working on steps nine through 12, including site selection. Rodriguez led the 12 students from the Lincoln Memorial to three potential sites.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Adults are going to ask college kids what they think about this really important thing that’s going to be standing here in Washington D.C. forever?’” said Hammitt.
“A lot of them had similar feedback,” Rodriguez recalled. “They wanted a place of quiet, reflection and healing to honor their parents.”
“There was a real sense of appreciation from the students to be included in this, to have their voices heard,” said Kilgannon.
The Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation hopes to announce its location by the end of 2022 and break ground within the next two years.
“Once it’s built, when they’re able to visit, they’ll be able to look back and say, ‘I was a part of this,’” Kilgannon said.
In the meantime, Patterson and Hammitt move forward with their futures.
Hammitt heads west to Portland, Oregon, to attend chiropractic school, while Patterson plans to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the Army.
“I want to be able to give my time and my service and continue to fight for this country,” she said.
And visiting the memorial honoring their fathers and so many others is a priority for them both.
“I’ll definitely make it there,” Hammitt said.
“I’m coming back as often as possible,” Patterson agreed.