By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Taking an oath to serve one’s country is an honorable decision — one not to be taken lightly given the risks that come in the military.

Two families in northern Minnesota are forever bonded by their two children who took an oath. Not just to serve, but to each other.

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Finding purpose after pain. It’s a journey that Ali Undeberg navigates every day.

“We had so many plans, so many dreams that we wanted to do … We had names picked out for our kids,” Ali said. “And obviously it’s still hard.”

Hard for Ali and the family of her high school sweetheart, Riley Kuznia. His mother, Markelle Kuznia, says by the time he was a boy she knew her son was probably going to join the military.

“It was just in him,” Markelle said.

She calmed her concerns through pride.

“You are just so proud that he made a decision to serve his country,” she said.

Riley joined the Marines after graduating high school in a small town close to the Canadian border. His loving relationship with Ali was intact despite the distance. Pamela Undeberg is Ali’s mother.

“She was gonna finish school and he was gonna finish the military, and then they were gonna find a place,” Pamela said.

That plan tragically changed on New Year’s Day of 2019. Riley was killed at his barracks in Washington D.C. when a fellow Marine pointed a gun at him and fired, thinking it wasn’t loaded.

“Was this a death that should have never happened? Absolutely,” Markelle said.

Ali Undeberg and Riley Kuznia (credit: Ali Undeberg)

One mother grieving a loss, as another consoled her grieving daughter.

“You know, just hold her and tell her that I was there for her. What can you do?” Pamela said.

Ali was lost.

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“I dropped out of college just because I got so far behind, I couldn’t like focus when I was in school,” Ali said.

Life at home was tough. She needed a new plan, and the one that kept coming up was a dream she had shared with Riley: joining the military.

“My biggest worry was that she was doing it for Riley and not for Ali,” Markelle said.

Telling his mom wouldn’t be easy.

“I explained to her just like this is what I want, this is something I always wanted,” Ali said.

The support, just like for her own son, was immediate.

“Because I’m watching her follow her dreams,” Markelle said. “When kids fall, you help pick them up, and you let them go.”

Ali chose the Marines, in part to feel the brotherhood Riley cherished.

“I keep his picture in my pocket of my camis every day,” she said.

Last year, Ali earned a promotion to Lance Corporal — the final rank Riley held. His mom still had the chevrons from his uniform, which are now pinned to Ali’s.

“So he gets me through most days, the hard days,” Ali said.

This is her new journey, but one she doesn’t walk alone.

“She is getting a life back that she had lost,” Markelle said.

“I’m thankful that the Marine Corps gave that back to me,” Ali said.

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Ali remains ever close with Riley’s family. She is going to be the maid of honor at his sister’s wedding.

Jeff Wagner