Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Army Col. John M. McHugh

Remember Our Heroes

Army Col. John M. McHugh, 46, of Newark, New Jersey

Col. McHugh was assigned to the U.S. Army Battle Command Training Program, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; died May 18, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered in a suicide car bombing. Also killed were Lt. Col. Paul R. Bartz, Lt. Col. Thomas P. Belkofer, Staff Sgt. Richard J. Tieman and Spc. Joshua A. Tomlinson.

To those who knew him growing up, U.S. Army Col. John McHugh was all things American — "apple pie," "a born leader," "a true gentleman."

"You couldn’t not like him," one of them said yesterday after friends and family learned that McHugh, 46, of West Caldwell, had been killed Tuesday in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. "This is everyone’s loss," said childhood buddy Gerard Giannetti, 46, of Roseland.

McHugh, one of the highest ranking officers to die in Afghanistan since the conflict began in 2001, was one of five U.S. soldiers killed along with a Canadian officer and a dozen Afghan civilians in Tuesday’s attack in Kabul. The suicide bomber targeted a NATO convoy with more than a half-ton of explosives.

A father of five who recently became a grandfather, McHugh, a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, had arrived in Afghanistan from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., just days before he was killed.

He is at least the 22nd service member with ties to New Jersey to die in Afghanistan since the war began. Nearly 100 others have died in Iraq since 2003.

"I knew him (McHugh) most of my life — CYO, altar boys, baseball," Giannetti said. "He was a pre-eminent leader, even as a kid. Very calm in a crisis. He married his high school sweetheart and defended his country."

The McHugh family has a long tradition of military service. "There’s always a couple of McHughs in the military. It’s been that way for so many years," said Cathy McHugh of Caldwell, a relative. "This is devastating. I don’t know how to handle it,"

After learning his youngest child had been killed, 84-year-old James McHugh, also of Caldwell, said his thoughts turned to another solider. "Michael, my grandson, is also overseas," he said, noting the young man is serving in Iraq.

Jeff Bradley, a writer at ESPN magazine who grew up playing sports with McHugh in North Jersey, said his friend, a helicopter pilot, was "a leader among leaders in the Army.

"What most of us do in our daily lives, we can’t compare with what he’s been doing for the last almost 30 years," Bradley said. "He’s a patriot and a hero, and I’m proud to say he was my friend."

Retired Chief Warrant Officer William Barker broke down as he spoke of McHugh. "It sounds trite. We say so many nice things about people who have passed, especially in the military, but he really was a fine, fine man. He was a prince," Barker said in an interview from Fort Leavenworth, where McHugh had been stationed. "Everything he did with good humor. I truly never saw him angry . "

James DiOrio, who went to high school and West Point with McHugh, described him as "always an upbeat optimistic guy with a smile on his face no matter what."

McHugh, a 1982 graduate of James Caldwell High School, was a helicopter pilot, husband and father of five children, whose youngest is only 5 years old. A couple of months ago, he also became a grandfather for the first time.

"Truly, next to my husband and father he was the greatest man I ever knew," said Megan Huber, husband of Ret. Maj. Allen Huber, who knew McHugh for 13 years.

Bradley said he and McHugh met when they were 8-year-old bat boys for their older brothers’ American Legion baseball team. Later they were teammates and McHugh wrote about their games in the weekly newspaper, "The Progress."

"So many of us have gotten back in touch recently, and we were looking forward to a get-together," said Bradley , who had re-connected with McHugh via Facebook. "That’s what makes it especially sad."

McHugh had written on Facebook last Saturday that he was leaving for Afghanistan the next day.

Before talking about his soccer team and the World Cup, U.S. coach Bob Bradley wanted to discuss the death of a family friend since childhood and point out what it means to travel representing the country.

Army Col. John McHugh, who had known the three Bradley brothers since their youth in New Jersey, was killed this week by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, the coach said at the start of his news conference Wednesday.

The 46-year-old, a 1986 West Point graduate, was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and wrote on Facebook last Saturday that he was leaving for Afghanistan the following day.

"As we go through this whole lead-in, we keep trying to find ways with our group to not only talk about soccer but talk about how special it is to play for your national team, how special it is to represent your country," Bob Bradley said. "And things like this absolutely bring it to light."

McHugh, a former West Point goalkeeper, played American Legion baseball against Jeff Bradley, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He also played youth sports against Scott Bradley, a former major league catcher and outfielder.

Bob Bradley said McHugh, who is survived by a wife, three sons, two daughters and a grandchild, had recently taken a U.S. Soccer goalkeeper course "to keep himself sharp and active."

"You hear news like that and when you think what it means to represent your country, you think about obviously how important the soccer is, but how it's not even close to what it means to be somewhere else in the world defending everything," Bob Bradley said.

The Associated Press reported from Afghanistan that a suicide bomber struck a U.S. convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people, including five American troops and a Canadian.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Wednesday information on this week's casualties had not yet been released.

"He was a catcher in baseball ... a goalkeeper in soccer. He was a born leader," Jeff Bradley wrote on his website.

He is being escorted back to the United States on May 20 by his son Warrant Officer Michael McHugh.

Army Col. John M. McHugh was killed in action on 5/18/10.

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