Images courtesy: Facebook
Chief Warrant Officer Michael McHugh was serving in Iraq when heartbreaking news reached him from another post-9/11 battlefield. His hero, mentor, and guiding voice had been tragically killed in Afghanistan. Chief Warrant Officer McHugh quickly boarded a plane to Kuwait and soon knelt beside the departed warrior's flag-draped casket. The fallen soldier was his father, Col. John McHugh, and it was time to bring him home.
While losing any servicemember is devastating, the scope and far-reaching impact of this tragedy is nearly incomprehensible. Col. McHugh was not only a key U.S. military leader, but a bedrock of unconditional love, neverending support, and strong principles for his family, particularly his five children. After spending much of the morning and early afternoon reading moving articles and incredible posts shared on a Facebook group dedicated to this honorable man and his family, it is clear that his legacy is already beginning to take shape.
"I thought I understood and appreciated the sacrifice that our Armed Forces and their families make for our country," Michael Regan wrote Wednesday afternoon. "But standing on the tarmac as John's body arrived and was met by Connie, his children, his parents and brothers and sister, I now realize this will be a very different Memorial Day for me."
One of the best profiles of Col. McHugh comes from a source that's usually focused on telling the stories of athletes: ESPN. Senior writer Jeff Bradley grew up with the future soldier in West Caldwell, New Jersey, and had recently reconnected with his old friend. They corresponded about America's pastime, and exchanged stories from their glory days together on the American Legion diamond. Then, a former teammate sent Bradley a solemn e-mail, relaying that their former catcher was one of the five U.S. soldiers killed in a Kabul, Afghanistan, terrorist attack on May 18.
My knees buckled. Tears poured from my eyes. All I could get myself to say, over and over, was "No." I ran downstairs and got on the computer. Word had spread quickly. It was true. U.S. Army Col. John McHugh, 46, had become one of the highest-ranking American officers to lose his life in the war in Afghanistan.
Bradley writes that Col. McHugh gave up playing baseball to focus on soccer at West Point, becoming a team captain while also excelling in the classroom. But he never lost his deep passion for baseball, and closely followed the career of his nephew, Tom Edwards, a promising third base prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. While Col. McHugh's family loyalty would have compelled him to pull for the O's if his nephew reached the big leagues, his favorite ballclub was the Kansas City Royals, which he adopted as his team while stationed at Fort Leavenworth.
Tuesday night, the colonel's uniformed son took the mound at Kauffman Stadium, as his father's smiling face shined on the jumbotron in front of 14,722 Royals fans. Thousands of miles from Iraq and Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer McHugh put his foot on the rubber and looked into catcher Brayan Pena's glove. He then delivered the game's first pitch in honor of the man who helped shape his service-driven life, as two of his sisters stood by his side to appreciate the standing ovation that followed.
As flags across Kansas fly at half-staff today, I regret not having enough space on this blog to adequately salute all the amazing accomplishments of Col. John McHugh. From his studies at West Point, American Public University, and the U.S. Army War College to his service in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom, Col. McHugh made everyone around him better. Yet perhaps it is best to let his son summarize the life of this compassionate family man and brave military leader. Through tears, the grieving soldier spoke to MLB.com.
"He was the best," McHugh said. "Everybody loved him -- great dad, great husband to my mom. Everybody who worked for him loved him. We're going to miss him a lot."
Chief Warrant Officer Michael McHugh left one war zone to escort his father home from another. While he undoubtedly wishes the ball he threw at Kauffman Stadium could have been caught by his dad, he knew the Royals fan pictured on the jumbotron was also watching over him from the highest bleachers in the sky. Tuesday night in Kansas City, a son made his father proud.