She Needs a Background Check and a Day Pass to Visit Her Father’s Grave, Part 2

This is the second story in a two-part series by Kelly McHugh-Stewart about visiting her father’s grave on Fort Leavenworth.

I had survived the Boy Scouts. I had made it through the Visitor’s Control Center and received my ticket to get on post. The gate guard had seen my little green pass and waved me through, and as I made my way down oak-tree lined Grant Avenue, I felt suddenly at home. Despite how much I dread the late-spring month because of the memories it holds, there’s no doubt May is the prettiest time of year on Fort Leavenworth. Spring flowers are in full bloom, trees and grass are deep green, and the weather is simply perfect. This Army post, the oldest military installation west of the Mississippi River, has always been kept in prime condition, and from its historic officer houses to the Buffalo Soldier Monument to the gorgeous views overlooking the Kansas River, it’s the perfect mix of Army prestige and “Hooah.”

I continued down Grant Avenue and turned into the Post Exchange (PX) parking lot. After my father’s death I kept each visit to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery exactly the same: coffee, flowers, cemetery. It was my ritual.

My family moved to Fort Leavenworth from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the week after I graduated high school in May of 2009. That the PX had recently added a Starbucks to its food court made my family’s latest move that much more exciting for my dad and me.

Colonel John M. McHugh pictured here on his 2007 – 2008 deployment to Kuwait. Courtesy of the McHugh family

He and I both really, really love coffee. My mom didn’t want the caffeine and my younger siblings were too young to drink it, so, naturally, it became our thing. My dad and I were by no means coffee snobs; as a matter of fact, he preferred McDonald’s brew to almost anything besides a styrofoam cup filled Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee. Folgers was his jam; he didn’t mess with the funky vanilla- or hazelnut-flavored coffees I’d bring home to brew in the mornings from time to time. This chip on his shoulder for plain, boring coffee came, I think, from his two-plus decades in the Army and his years and years of drinking the instant stuff that’s packed inside MREs whenever he was deployed or in the field training.

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When we were stationed in Carlisle, my parents had opted to live off post for the first time during dad’s military career. They’d rented a big farmhouse surrounded by corn fields and silos in the rolling Pennsylvania countryside. Often, on his way home from his morning classes at the Army War College, my dad would pick up Starbucks. I’m sure he would have preferred to swing through Dunkin’, but, without fail, he’d show up with a decaf latte for my mom and caramel or vanilla or whatever fancy drink I was in the mood for for me. For him? Grande Pike, black. When we moved to Fort Leavenworth, I knew that the Starbucks in the PX meant he’d go out of his way to pick up coffee for me at this duty station, too. I was 17 years old then, unaware that that year in Leavenworth would be our last year together; I don’t think I really appreciated the gesture at the time.

I thought about this as I stood in line at that same Starbucks six years—almost to the day—after his death. It was just like old times, but with a little green get-on-post pass in my pocket and without him. The barista pressed the white lid on my Grande Pike, black, and handed it to me. In high school I could never understand how my dad drank black coffee; now as an adult, it’s all I drink. I took a sip and burned my tongue on the hot, dark liquid. I wanted to tell him that I’ve grown to enjoy black coffee, too.

The McHugh family in front of their house on Fort Rucker, Alabama, winter 2007. From left to right: Brothers David and Michael, Kelly, mother Connie, sisters Maggie and Kristen, and Colonel McHugh. Courtesy of the McHugh family

I walked through the PX’s food court and into the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s flower shop. The year after my dad was killed in action I started a tradition of bringing one red carnation for every member of my family to his gravesite every time I visited. I was a sophomore at Kansas State University at the time and the only member of my family—which then included my mother, four siblings, my sister-in-law, and my niece—left in Kansas. When I first started the tradition I had planned on buying roses, but eight red roses were far more expensive than eight red carnations, so, in true cheap-college-student fashion, I opted for the carnations.

I knew the drive to the cemetery from the PX so well it was as though I’d never moved away from Fort Leavenworth. I drove past the bowling alley where my family spent many a Friday night, past Harney Gym where I used to work as a lifeguard, and past the greens of Trails West Golf Course where my father took his brother, my Uncle Frank, every time he visited. I saw the cemetery in the distance. The marble headstones, sparkling in the sun, placed in their perfect, straight lines had me in tears all over again.

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I parked my car in the “K” section of the cemetery just before the tall oak tree whose roots spread in all directions. In the fall, the tree keeps the grounds crew busy as it drops piles and piles of leaves and acorns on the headstones surrounding it; but in the spring, in the spring the tree’s leaves are a deep green, and the grass surrounding it is green and lush. In the spring it’s beautiful. My sneakers left footprints in that thick grass as I walked up the small hill. It was a straight shot from my car through the aisle of marble leading to my father’s grave.

“Hey Dad,” I said as I laid the flowers down before his headstone and pulled up the few tall blades of grass that blocked the words etched in the marble. I had sat in this same spot so many times before, but this time was different. This time I was leaving him, moving away. I felt a twinge of guilt. I was the one who brought the wreaths at Christmastime, who came to the Memorial Day cemetery services, who, every visit, brought the eight, then nine, then 10, 11, and now 12 red carnations representing our ever-growing family. Maybe Fort Leavenworth felt most like home to me because it was where he is; from the moment I was born in Nurnberg, Germany, throughout my life as we moved from Alabama to Colorado to California, back to Alabama to Kansas, back to Germany and so on and so on, wherever he, Colonel John M. McHugh, was was where I called home.

Colonel McHugh’s gravesite at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, photo taken spring 2017. Courtesy of the McHugh family

Home is where the Army sends you. Army wives have this saying embroidered on pillows, stenciled on their walls, painted at the top of little wood plaques with an ever-growing list of places the family has followed their soldier etched underneath. Growing up, the saying was one we had hanging on a plaque and used in our own Army houses so often that it stopped feeling like a saying and became a fact. Wherever the Army sent us was home. I thought about that phrase as I stared at the date etched into his marble headstone: MAY 18, 2010.

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Besides the cemetery and the memories I had of living on the post, I no longer had ties to Fort Leavenworth. The rest of my family and all of our Army friends had since moved away. Fort Leavenworth wasn’t really my home. And yet, it still felt like home; leaving it was still difficult. I was following a dream by moving to New York City for graduate school to become a writer, an author, and I knew he’d be proud. But moving to New York meant moving away from him, away from my Army home, from the Army culture he gave me.

I took a sip of my coffee.

“I’m going to miss this,” I told him.

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Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a New York City-based writer currently working on a book about her father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, who was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.

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