For graduating seniors at Kansas State University, May 18, 2013 means many things.
It means new beginnings, new careers and new chapters to fill.
It means smiling faces, flashbacks on memories made and sad goodbyes, all at the same time.
And while I joined all the other K-State seniors graduating in Bramlage Coliseum, the date May 18, to me, will forever mean something completely different.
For me, it will be the mark of how far I’ve come in exactly three years.
Three years ago, on May 18, 2010, during finals week of my freshman year of college, moving forward with my life became last thing I wanted to think about.
Moving forward sounded like an impossible task.
On May 18, 2010, my father, Col. John M. McHugh, was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan. He had served 24 years in the U.S. Army.
A suicide bomber took the lives of 18 people that morning after driving his Toyota minibus packed with explosives into a U.S. military convoy. Five American soldiers, including my father, were killed, along with a Canadian colonel. The convoy was on its way to a NATO peace conference in Afghanistan’s capitol.
My dad wasn’t deployed and was only supposed to be in Afghanistan for two weeks.
While I’ve never known any other life than being a military child. Growing up, tragedy always felt so far away from me. I had never personally known someone killed in action.
My dad was a West Point graduate, a helicopter pilot throughout the 1990s, and a colonel in the Army. As he moved up the ranks, his job became more command-oriented. Though I had friends whose parents served multiple deployments, my dad was only deployed once and that was to Kuwait in 2007-08.
I used to think I had lived the ultimate “Army brat” life when he would talk about retiring after 25 years in the service.
It’s an adventurous lifestyle for a kid – moving all the time, seeing other countries and cultures through a child’s eyes and making new friends at every duty station – but it’s a lifestyle that reinforces the importance of independence, patriotism and family bonds from an early age.
I mean, I did live in 12 different houses before I graduated from high school. What more could an Army kid possibly go through, right?
I learned the hard way exactly what more an Army kid could go through – taking that step from a proud Army daughter to an even prouder Gold Star daughter.
My family lived on post at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when my dad was killed.
I graduated from high school in 2009 in Carlisle, Penn., where my family was stationed for just 10 months while my dad attended the U.S. Army War College. The week after my high school graduation, we packed up and moved to Kansas.
My dad worked for the Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth. He spent his first year there on the road a few weeks out of every month visiting different military facilities and working with their training programs.
Almost a year after we moved to Fort Leavenworth, in May 2010, he left for a two-week visit to Afghanistan.
I worked at Fort Leavenworth’s indoor pool about a mile away from my house. That morning I was scheduled to teach swim lessons and when I got a text from my younger sister: “Kelly, you need to come home now.”
I put my phone down and got back to work. What could possibly be going on that they’d want me to just up and leave?
That text was followed by another text from my sister, then one from my mom. Finally, my mom called. The strangest thing about the phone call was that my mom sounded completely calm.
“You need to leave work,” she said.
“I’ll be back in 30 minutes,” I said to my boss and apologized as I walked out the glass double doors.
I didn’t return to work that day.
The car ride home was usually only a three-minute trip, but for some reason I took a longer route. I wanted to give myself time to think about what could be going on back at my house. Looking back on it now, I think subconsciously I just wanted a few more minutes of my normal life before a new reality struck.
When I finally turned down my street and saw our driveway, everything hit me at once. As an Army daughter, I knew exactly what it meant that two unfamiliar cars were parked in my driveway.
The cars’ two distinct license plates still haunt me today. One said U.S. GOVERNMENT. I pulled in behind the other car – my pastor’s car. Written in big, bold letters on its license plate was one word – PRAY.
Three years later, I can’t look at a government license plate or see the word ‘pray’ without being brought back to that moment in my life.
In April 2010 my older brother, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Michael McHugh, was deployed to Iraq with a unit out of Fort Riley. I braced myself for the worst as I got out of my car and prepared myself for the bad news I expected about my brother.
As I walked past my house’s front windows, I saw two men wearing green uniforms. Two is protocol for bad news.
I walked in the front door and into an immediate embrace from my mom. I didn’t even look at the two soldiers. All I could think about was comforting her. I still thought the bad news would be about my brother.
Then, while she was still hugging me, she said it.
“It’s your dad.”
When I had walked in the door she was composed, but just saying those words brought her back to tears.
I walked to the staircase in our house and sat down. I was emotionally thrown for a loop, confused and angry.
It never crossed my mind that those cars parked in front of my house and the two men in green uniforms standing in my house could be there because of my dad.
My dad had only been in Afghanistan a few days. He was only supposed to be there a short time longer.
He wasn’t even deployed.
From that point on the rest of the day was like living in some kind of a dreamland, I know that sounds cliché, but it’s exactly how it felt. My family wasn’t allowed to call or talk to anyone until my grandparents and my dad’s siblings, who all lived in New Jersey, were notified.
It was eerie. The sun was shining, and it was a gorgeous spring day, but my family, my two younger sisters, my 5-year-old brother and my mom, just sat around our kitchen table. We were unable to tell anyone about what had happened, we didn’t know if my older brother had been notified yet and we still didn’t know any details other than that our dad was killed. No one said much.
I don’t remember much else about that day, or the days following. My brother was given the news while still in Iraq. It took three days for him to get back on U.S. soil to be reunited with us.
In my mind, the whole first week is lumped into a mix of emotions and actions. I can’t place exact times or dates of when things happened. My entire family, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all came to Kansas for the funeral. Family friends and military friends came from around the world to be there. There were so many people that first week leading up to the funeral, so much going on, but I still felt numb to it all.
It didn’t feel real to me until I heard the 21 gun salute, until “Taps” was played at my dad’s funeral in Leavenworth National Cemetery. That’s when it hit me. That’s when it became reality.
I was 18 years old when my dad was killed. Most children who have lost parents in the war are much younger. I felt like I was one of a kind. But I soon found out I wasn’t the only college student suffering the loss of a parent killed in action.
Josh Harrison was a junior at Leavenworth High School on May 6, 2007, when his dad, Col. James Warren Harrison, was killed in Afghanistan. Col. Harrison was killed by an Afghan soldier in a shocking “Green on Blue” incident.
The Harrison family was stationed at Fort Leavenworth three years before my family. I had never before met Josh, nor had I heard his story. But he had heard mine through mutual friends at Fort Leavenworth.
Three days after my dad was killed, Josh, then a student at K-State, made the two-hour drive from Manhattan to Fort Leavenworth and showed up at my house.
I appreciated each and every person who came over to comfort my family. But before Josh, I never felt anyone could relate to me.
When Josh showed up it was different. He and I sat at my kitchen table. We were constantly surrounded by people coming and going, but we just continued to talk.
He talked about what his family went through. He talked about his brothers, his mom, his grandparents and uncles and aunts. He talked about everything, and he was honest when talking about the years following his father’s death.
We had just met, but we had a bond like long-time friends.
Seeing his success at K-State three years after his dad was killed gave me assurance. Despite how dark my world looked the end of May 2010, life would get better.
Josh and I continued to be friends when I transferred to K-State in the spring of 2011. He was always there to answer my calls or texts regardless of what my questions were. He helped me through the paperwork that came with Veteran’s Affairs and he introduced me to a two incredible organizations — the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Children of Fallen Patriots — which support military kids like us.
Nearly three years later, I’m at the place in the healing process Josh was when he first visited.
Josh graduated from K-State in May 2012. He is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed in South Korea after graduating from the Basic Officers’ Leadership Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in April.
It’s strange, the similarities between Josh’s story and mine.
Three years separated the deaths of our fathers. Three houses separated his old house and mine on post. Three tombstones separate our fathers’ graves at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
I finally understand where Josh was emotionally when he came to visit me that day. I will never really completely heal; my life has just taken on a new normal. I can let my dad’s death hold me back, or I can use it as motivation to move forward.
I am moving forward to make my soldier proud.
And now, exactly three years after my dad was killed in action, exactly three years after I became a Gold Star daughter, I’m taking that step from college to the real world.
Three years later.
Without my hero, my coach, my biggest fan.
Without my dad.