COMMENTARY: Reflections on valor, tenderness, a Race to Baghdad, and the limits of power

Ten years ago this week, the Third Infantry Division was on its race to Baghdad.

Today, a decade into the war on terror that began with unity in the wake of 9-11,  Americans — including me — are introspective about our country’s role in the world, the limits of military power, constitutional restraints on presidential war-making powers, the need to restrain abuses in the Pentagon budget, provision of mental health care to returning veterans – and concerned about domestic use of the drone technology that is allowing our war-fighters to target terrorist leaders abroad without endangering the lives of soldiers.

Policy begins with people. This week turned me toward memories of days when Stefan Aleksandr McGuigan, in the Third I.D (the Audie Murphy Division), became the first regular Army Medic to reach Baghdad.

Not long before, on his twentieth birthday, March 17, he lay in the desert of Kuwait, a hundred yards outside his Brigade’s line, staring at stars and thinking of home. 

On launch night (March 19-20), he watched as U.S. rockets raced across Heaven, bringing light to night. He prayed for a clear path.

Days later in the desert, the Third Infantry Division came to a small, fortified place. In a brief battle with a regular Iraqi Army unit, there were no casualties or injuries for our troops. Soon, the enemy surrendered in good order and discipline.

The Americans discerned a man to whom the other Iraqis were deferential was the commander.  Unafraid but not hostile, the gentleman talked to the U.S. soldiers. With a cane, he drew in the sand a crescent, saying, “Most of our Army.” Drawing a cross, he continued, “My men. Saddam sent us here, hoping you would kill us all.” 

In early April, on the Euphrates at Al-Kiffel, Stefan’s comrades for the first time fought the Republican Guard: “They just would not stop coming.” Many Iraqis died there, at a place where Stefan’s unit fought one of the longest engagements since World War II.

For 36 hours, they worked up a long boulevard, engaging almost continuously. Half way through that, a station wagon pulled onto the street and headed toward the Americans. 

Stefan’s sergeant ordered: “Shoot into the head gasket.” Our men did, but still the car came. Before anyone had heard of Improvised Explosive Devices, the guys wanted to end mystery over the driver’s intentions, but “Sarge” forbade kill shots.

The car finally stopped. An old man stepped out, weeping and holding his hand. A bloodied finger was almost detached. 

The sergeant pulled the old man behind a building and ordered “Doc” (the name you get after you save a life in combat) McGuigan to fix him up. 

Our guys were still in special gear, wrapped up in anticipation of chemical attacks. Doc McGuigan removed his gloves and helmet and went to work. With some binding and repair, he fixed the wound, gave the fellow a pack of meds and, in halting communication, directions to avoid infection.

As Doc worked, the Iraqi said “Allah” every dozen words or so. Then, as Doc finished up, the old guy grabbed his right hand, pulled it to trembling lips, kissed it, then said “Allah” a bunch more. 

Doc looked over at his hard-ass sergeant, whose restraining orders had saved the old man’s life. Tears were pouring down his face, same as Doc and his comrades. 

He has a hundred stories like that, but rarely shares them. From time to time, usually at night, one or more emerges quietly, almost reverently. 

Stefan’s old man has questions about the kind of power that puts soldiers in such places. And, I stand in awe of those who, generation after generation, respond when our country calls.

Next time, will Congress insist on a constitutional declaration of war before a president sends daughters and sons into harm’s way? We can engage in nation building, but should we? Can we “do” drones, yet avoid domestic misuse of an awesome technology? Should our military be mobile and cavalry-like, and less industrial? What amount of after-combat care for veterans is enough – or is “enough” the wrong question? 

Those questions occupy the mind, as I chase stories on taxes, spending, Corrections, and agency reviews. But the main question these last few days has been the same one I asked my wife ten years ago.

Doc” was home for a few days. Our parish, where he had grown up, held a reception. People who had known Stefan his whole life were there. He sketched a few stories focused on his sergeants and his buddies, giving them all the credit for a mission in which he believed.

And then came this:

“Most of the time, I was not afraid. We were confident, and trained, but that was only part of it. I felt covered, enveloped and protected in my mother’s prayers, and those of many others, including all of you, and some I do not know.  I believe because of my mother’s prayers, the Mother of Jesus protected me and my friends.”

That night, alone with his mother, I asked in wonder, “How did we raise a hero?

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.