One Year Later: Reflecting on the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Author: Kelly McHugh-Stewart
I was 36-weeks pregnant with my son when CNN reached out to me for an interview. Like many in August 2021, I had watched with a heavy heart as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took over Kabul. In 2010, my father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, was killed on those same streets that I was watching on my TV screen. Eleven years later, I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing.
When I agreed to the interview, I made sure to let them know I was pregnant–like really pregnant. When I showed up at their New York City studio, the producer smiled and let out a laugh, "You weren't kidding." During the interview, CNN’s John Berman asked me questions about the withdrawal, how I was feeling. He then closed out our conversation with a surprise: he asked me what I was going to name my then unborn baby.
"Johnny," I said, slightly hesitant to announce my baby’s name on national TV, "after my dad."
It was an emotional twist to an already emotional segment. In those early days of the withdrawal, I was angry, confused. I felt a mix of relief that my son wouldn't grow up in the shadows of the war that took his grandfather’s life, and sorrow about what was happening in Afghanistan.
Like so many whose lives were forever changed by that war, the fall of Afghanistan one year ago brought up old, familiar feelings. My grief was showing up again in ways I hadn’t expected it to, and I began to question everything.
Luckily for me, that’s when TAPS came to my rescue.
Finding Hope. Finding Healing.
TAPS is the leading organization providing compassionate care to the families of America’s fallen heroes. They celebrate the lives and the legacies of our loved ones, and they honor their service. When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan and Kabul fell to the Taliban, TAPS was equipped and ready to care for surviving families who, like me, found themselves reliving the pain and grief that came with losing a loved one there. TAPS was there to listen to our stories, shoulder our tears, and celebrate the lives our heroes lived.
Today, a year later, the TAPS mission is as important as ever. As headlines from Afghanistan faded from social media feeds and the nightly newscasts, TAPS steadfast support for the families they serve never wavered. As the world “moved on,” as it often does, TAPS was there. Grief doesn’t follow a 9-5 schedule, it comes by way of surprise and often at the most inconvenient of times–like the middle of the night or during the holidays. TAPS knows that, and is there 24/7, ready to answer survivors’ calls–no matter the time or day. TAPS gives surviving family members the comfort of knowing they have someone in their corner, and that comfort is life-changing.
Celebrating the Lives Lived
The true lessons of war are not in what our warriors died for but for what, and for whom, they lived. ~ Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder, TAPS
Following that interview with CNN, I was fortunate to speak with TAPS Founder and President Bonnie Carroll; I’ll never forget our conversation. In the midst of my despair, she was full of hope. In the midst of my frustration, she reminded me that my father’s service mattered. And despite what was happening, she and TAPS were there for me. It was a much-needed shift in perspective from someone who knows the pain that comes with loss all too well.
Bonnie then invited me to take part in the TAPS panel discussion, “Finding Meaning in Afghanistan,” where I had the chance to meet Colonel Abdul Hadi Barakzai, the military/defense attaché at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. Colonel Barakzai thanked me for the sacrifice my father made to “save his nation” and assured me that my father’s service made a difference to the Afghan people. They were words of encouragement I hadn’t realized I needed. In addition to Colonel Barakzai, the panel consisted of members of the military community who were also struggling. The panel not only offered hope and resources, but it also provided community at a time when so many felt alone. It was just one of the many ways TAPS showed support during that difficult time and beyond.
One year later, and I’ve had the chance to celebrate my father's life in new ways with my happy, bouncy baby, Johnny. We have a picture of my dad next to his crib and, every night, we say goodnight to grandpa. "Grandpa was a hero," I tell him. He’s too young to understand now, but I hope as he grows up he finds the same pride in my father's story that I do; and I hope our shared hero's life inspires him as he, one day, sets off on his own path in the world.
This week, as we collectively reflect on the past year since we watched Kabul fall, I’m grateful to TAPS for helping me, and so many others, find hope and meaning in our heroes’ incredible lives and legacies.
Kelly McHugh-Stewart is the surviving daughter of Colonel John McHugh, U.S. Army.
Photos courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart.