An Army Brat and a Gold Star On Graduation Day
I held it together pretty well. I smiled and laughed with my classmates the morning of our graduation ceremony. Surrounded by giddy undergrads in bright red robes, we wore our all-black regalia, setting us apart as graduate students, proudly. I didn’t cry when my classmates and I lined up and marched into the tennis stadium-turned-auditorium to our cheering family and friends, and I didn’t cry when the commencement speaker, award-winning photographer Camilo José Vergara, shared a picture he took of the smoky New York City skyline following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even though it was events following those attacks that led me to New York City in the first place. My eyes began to mist, nose began to run, but I bit back my tears; I could fall apart later.
I graduated with a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from the New School on May 18, 2018—exactly eight years after my father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Tuesday, May 18, 2010, a Taliban suicide bomber drove his explosive-packed vehicle into my father’s convoy, killing him, four other American soldiers, and a Canadian Colonel instantly. My father wasn’t deployed; he was only supposed to be there for 10 days. As a member of the Basic Command Training Program based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was in Afghanistan to survey the area in order to better help prepare Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division for its deployment that fall.
As I sat at my graduation ceremony exactly eight years later, I thought of my dad. I thought of the two soldiers who showed up at my family’s doorstep to break the news and the confusing days that followed his death. I’d felt this way before, though. My graduation from the New School wasn’t the first graduation day I’ve shared with the anniversary of my father’s death.
The week he was killed, I was home in Kansas preparing for finals week of my freshman year in college. I had good grades that semester and felt confident going into finals week, but I wouldn’t wind up taking them. I don’t know who notified my school of my father’s death, but they exempted me from tests that week and gave me “as much time as I felt I needed” to make them up.
In the days and the months following May 18, 2010, my education was the last thing on my mind. I dropped out of the summer classes I had planned on taking and stopped looking into all the schools my dad had spent hours researching for me; I had intended to transfer that fall. When it came to college, my dad had done everything for me. Without him, I was lost.
I wound up transferring to Kansas State University in the spring of 2011. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the G.I. Bill or about the numerous scholarship organizations available to Gold Star children, a title I was still getting used to after spending the first 18 years of my life referring to myself as an Army brat. All I knew was that K-State was a quick two-hour drive from Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, where my father is buried, and that its journalism program was a good fit, mostly because it took the majority of my transferred credits.
During my time at K-State I got to know a fellow Gold Star child, Josh Harrison, son of Army Colonel James Harrison, who was killed in action at Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. Josh helped me figure out the Gold Star child chapter of the G.I. Bill and introduced me to an organization that would change my life, Children of Fallen Patriots. Fallen Patriots offered more than a scholarship; it offered me a safety net and a community of other Gold Star families with whom I could share my struggles. With Josh and Children of Fallen Patriots behind me, I had a support system again.
I was proud of myself when I found out that, despite transferring and despite dropping summer classes, I didn’t have to take a fifth year of college and that I’d graduate from Kansas State in May of 2013 as planned. I didn’t know that would mean graduating on the three-year anniversary of my father’s death.
As I walked across the stage of Bramlage Coliseum and received my diploma on May 18, 2013, the local news station, Topeka’s WIBW, had its cameras fixed on me. Diploma case in hand, I flashed a smile at the camera then looked up into the bleachers and saw my mom and siblings. I began to sob. My story headlined WIBW’s broadcast that evening.
“It’s like he was right there with you,” I remember a family friend saying as she draped her arm over my shoulder during my backyard graduation party.
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The first time I graduated on the anniversary of my father’s death felt like fate. A passion for learning, for education, was something he and I had shared. I wouldn’t have made it through undergrad without the preparation and guidance he’d provided me in the years leading up to his death. I wouldn’t have graduated without the scholarships offered to me because of his sacrifice.
But I didn’t want to share the date the second time around. My husband and I took a leap of faith when we moved from Kansas to New York City so I could pursue my master’s degree in creative writing and spend two years fully focused on writing a book about my father. I’ve spent two years absorbed in his life—in notes, news articles, photo albums, and interviews with friends and family and colleagues—and when graduation rolled around, though it was fitting, I didn’t want to share that date again. I’d already spent one graduation balancing being happy and being sad; this time, I just wanted to celebrate.
Kelly McHugh-Stewart celebrates her graduation with her husband, Mark Stewart, outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on May 18, 2018. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart
I’ve come to learn that when you lose someone you love, the hurt shows up stronger during the happy times. I felt it during my wedding when I hugged my older brother before he walked me down the aisle, and I felt it each time I found out I’d soon be an aunt to a new niece or nephew. There’s an underlying sadness that comes with the joy.
Dad would be so proud.
I know that the sadness I felt during my graduations would have still been there regardless of the date. Even if I had graduated on a different day in May, the tears still would have formed as I looked up at my family cheering me on and thought about the absence of my father.
Sharing my graduation date, twice now, with the anniversary of his death has been bittersweet. Both times it has been emotional, but it has also been a powerful reminder of the strength it took to get back on my feet. It’s a statement: I did not let the terrorist who took my father’s life defeat me, and I am far from done when it comes to living my life to make my father proud.
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After saying goodbye to my classmates, my husband and I, hand in hand like when we had first moved to New York, headed to catch our train home.
“My dad would have thought this stadium was so cool,” I told my husband. We walked past walls decorated with photos of the tennis greats who had graced the courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium and toward the stadium’s big, gated exit. My dad was, still is, the biggest sports fan I know.
My husband put his arm around me and squeezed, and it was then I finally let myself go.