Kelly McHugh embraces her father John McHugh on Fort Rucker, Alabama, before his year-long deployment to Kuwait in June 2007.

Gold Star daughter: 20 years after 9/11, where do we go from here?

Updated 9:50 AM ET, Tue September 7, 2021

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a writer based out of New York City. Her reporting and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Reader's Digest and Sports Illustrated, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about sacrifice, legacy, and finding meaning in the Forever War. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)My first child is due September 13, just around the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. He'll never get the chance to meet his grandfather.

My father, US Army Colonel John M. McHugh, was killed in Afghanistan. Though the United States involvement in Afghanistan ended on August 31, my son will feel the war's ripples. As he grows up with only stories about his grandfather, the man he'll share a name with, the Forever War will haunt him in ways that, over the past decade, they've haunted me. I'm already bracing for the day he starts asking questions.
Kelly McHugh-Stewart
"Why did he have to die?" he may ask.
I wish I had a good answer.
I was 18 on May 18, 2010, when my father's convoy was hit by a suicide bomber on the streets of Kabul. The attack killed more high-ranking officers than the war had seen in its then-nine years, and the Taliban took credit for it immediately.
Like anyone hit with the news of losing a loved one too soon, I was rocked by my father's sudden, unexpected death -- my world shaken. But amid the pain and grief, there was also confusion. In the months, then years, then decade that followed, I was filled with questions that, no matter where I looked or who I talked to, were never answered. I wanted to know what exactly we were doing in Afghanistan and what the endgame was. I wanted to know that my dad's life was at least part of progress towards a bigger plan. I felt my country owed me that.
Kelly and her father, John McHugh, following his return from Kuwait in the Summer of 2008.
As the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, what are Gold Star families like mine supposed to feel? As we watch the Taliban take over the country, what does that mean for the legacies of the ones we've lost? What do we have to show for their lives? I'd always thought ending the Forever War would provide some kind of meaning in my father's death, but that has been hard to find, and I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that maybe I'll never find it.
Since President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal earlier this year, I've been following the commentary surrounding the decision closely. Words from podcasts, newscasts, essays and military Twitter swirl through my head. I've read the personal stories from veterans, listened to thoughts on the withdrawal from politicians and military leaders and followed the devastating reports from the ground in Afghanistan. Though this withdrawal is what I've been waiting for, longing for, since my father's death, it doesn't feel the way I thought it would.
I was 10 years old on September 11, 2001. At the time, my family was one month into a three-year assignment in Geibelstat, Germany. That afternoon, helicopters from the Army post flew low above our neighborhood, the loud thud, thud, thud, thud of their blades slicing through the silent streets. I was scared and remember worrying about my dad -- Giebelstadt Army Airfield went on lockdown and I was nervous he would never be able to come home from work. It's been 20 years, but my memories of that day are crystal clear.
The McHugh family (left to right: Kristen, Kelly, Michael, Connie, and John) in Fort Irwin, California, 1994.
There was no doubt then our nation would go to war, that we'd, as President George W. Bush put it, "find out who did this, and kick their ass." A month later, on October 10, 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom officially began. In the war's first two years, the United States was making headway.