This is the first story in a two-part series by Kelly McHugh-Stewart about visiting her father’s grave on Fort Leavenworth.
Boy Scouts raced through the parking lot of the Fort Leavenworth Visitor Control Center in their tan button-ups and disheveled blue neckties. They shouted, pushed each other to the ground, and wrestled while their middle-aged chaperones stood in the gravel parking lot, waiting. I cringed at the sight of their two yellow school buses. I was in for a long wait.
My father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, is buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. He was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 18, 2010. The week following his death, the entirety of Fort Leavenworth showed up to line Grant Avenue, the historic post’s main road, as hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders roared their motorcycles down the street leading the hearse carrying his flag-draped coffin. I held my breath during his 21-gun salute; I cried alongside my family as a long bugler played taps.
But that was six years ago, and now no one at the Fort Leavenworth Visitor Control Center knew I was a Gold Star daughter when I showed up that morning in May of 2016. During those six years, I’d turned 21 and lost my military identification card. Now, instead of driving onto any post easily like I’d been able to my whole life, I had to get a background check and a one-day pass like all the other civilians.
I pulled a number and sat down in the waiting room where more Boy Scouts and their chaperones, mostly somewhat-out-of-shape dads, had congregated along with a few other agitated people sitting in the hard plastic chairs waiting for their numbers to be called.
“56!” a woman shouted out the door of one of the three tiny offices.
I glanced down at my number: 79. I sighed and rolled my eyes.
When did this happen? I thought. When was I cast into the same civilian category as these Boy Scouts and their dads who looked at Fort Leavenworth as nothing more than a fun field trip?
As I watched two boys chase each around the waiting room screaming BANG BANG BANG, pretending to kill each other, I pictured them at home, circling “ARMY DAY” on their calendars with hunter green crayons, excitedly anticipating this adventure to visit real-life soldiers on a real-life Army post. The stop through security only adding to the day’s novelty.
Protocol. I kept telling myself. Stupid Army protocol.
The waiting room was cold, sterile. Goosebumps dotted my arms, but my cheeks were red with heat. I should have been free to visit my father, who’s buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, whenever I pleased. I bit my lip to hold back my tears of anger and hurt that had made their way to the corners of my eyes.
I lost my father when I was 18 years old; that was hard enough. I had anticipated that I would bear that hurt for the rest of my life, but I hadn’t anticipated the hurt of losing my culture, my identity when I lost my military ID, and, ultimately, free and easy access to visit my father. I had never had a real hometown; rather, I had the numerous military bases I grew up on, each one of which I considered “home.” Sitting in that waiting room, waiting to get on a post where I had once gone to elementary school, made best friends, worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor, and, ultimately, buried my father, I felt like I was no longer welcome.
Nearly an hour later, after the Boy Scouts and their chaperones and troop leaders had filed out, my number was called. I was summoned into a small corner office by a short, slightly stocky, uniformed man with a classic Army buzz cut. High and tight, like my dad always told his barber. The security guard soldier didn’t look at me as he plopped down behind his computer and motioned for me to sit in the chair across his desk. After an hour of dealing with background checks on excited 10-year-old kids and their equally giddy dads, this guy looked about as miserable as I felt.
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“Valid driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance,” he said as though he were functioning on autopilot.
I knew the drill. I placed my already-prepared paperwork on his desk and leaned into the hard foam back of my chair.
“Reason for visit?” he asked. His voice monotone. “Cemetery,” I said, matching his tone. He glanced up from his computer and gave me a sympathetic nod before continuing my background check. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t like all these other people coming in and out of his office. I wanted to tell him that I had had a military ID for the first 21 years of my life, that I hadn’t always been a civilian. I wanted to complain about the Boy Scouts and the wait and the pass system to get on Fort Leavenworth, but I knew it would get me nowhere. This new, lengthy protocol—the waiting room, the paperwork—wasn’t this guy’s fault; I couldn’t imagine he joined the military to do background checks on frustrated civilians. I fidgeted with my keys instead.
The author, Kelly McHugh-Stewart, pictured here with her father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh on Mt. Evans, Colorado in fall 2009. Courtesy of the McHugh family
After staring at his computer screen for what felt like ages, he passed my license, registration, and proof of insurance across the desk and pulled a green visitor’s pass out of his desk drawer.
“If you don’t mind me asking, who are you visiting at the cemetery?”
I didn’t mind at all.
“My dad,” I said. “He was killed in Afghanistan.”
The soldier paused.
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,” he said as he slid my green pass into his notary seal and pressed its silver handles together. He stood up from his desk and handed me my paper pass, donned with the circular, raised Fort Leavenworth seal.
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“I gave you a week pass, just in case you need to come back,” he said. “So next time you don’t have to wait.”
I didn’t tell him I only needed a day pass, that this visit was my final visit to Fort Leavenworth for a while, because the next day I would be driving away from Kansas to my new life in New York City—but his small act of kindness meant the world.
“And thank you for your family’s service,” he added.
I smiled, thanked him, and choked back tears as I left his office and headed to buy flowers to lay on my father’s grave.
Read the second piece in Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s two-part series.