This week, millions of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, watched the news in horror as reports of a bombing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan began to fill our screens. Every new headline revealed a higher death toll for American troops assigned to work at the airport during the mass evacuation effort following the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover. Three service members lost. Make that four. Within hours, a dozen. And finally the count seems to have settled at least thirteen American military lives lost in service to their country. Ninety Afghan citizens tragically perished as a result of the suicide bombing, and many more people were injured. The scene is unthinkable; the violence unspeakable.
Thirteen American families are now preparing to say their final goodbye to the service members they loved. Thirteen knocks on thirteen doors by uniformed colleagues assigned to deliver the news. Thirteen flag-draped caskets holding the bodies of the brave. Thirteen funerals. Thirteen stories ended long before their final chapters should have been written.
It’s unbearably tragic.
Nobody understands the weight of this kind of loss better than Tarah McLaughlin, widow of Army Staff Sergeant Ian McLaughlin.
When Tarah saw the beautiful SUV in her driveway on that Sunday morning in January 2020, her first thought was, “Oh my gosh. Ian got me a present!” Her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Ian McLaughlin, was two months from the end of his deployment to Afghanistan. They had discussed replacing her car when he got back, but it was early January, and Tarah McLaughlin wondered if Ian had “worked some kind of magic,” and pulled off a late Christmas miracle.
She ran down the stairs with her three-year-old daughter trailing behind. When she spotted two uniformed soldiers through her glass front door, she instantly realized her mistake. The pieces started to fall into place. She had spoken to Ian the night before, but hadn’t heard from him since. It was unusual, but not unheard of for Ian to get caught up in a mission and take a little extra time to check in. She had not been worrying.
That knock on the door could only mean one thing.
“My heart dropped. I knew in that moment that it wasn’t a brand-new vehicle for me. I knew,” Tarah shares.
Her daughter saw the uniforms, too. At three years old, she didn’t know what soldiers at the door meant for the family of a deployed servicemember. “Mommy, mommy!” she cried. “Open the door! Daddy’s home!”
But Ian McLaughlin wasn’t home. During his final mission the night before, his vehicle, the first in a convoy, had encountered an IED while out on patrol. He and the driver were killed. Two others in the vehicle were severely wounded. Staff Sergeant Ian McLaughlin was only 29 years old.
The military flew Ian’s body home, and his family was finally able to lay him to rest just over a week after his passing. With Ian in his final resting place, Tarah was a widow in her twenties, and her three small children would have to learn how to live the rest of their lives without their hero.
The McLaughlin’s love story was a whirlwind to rival any fairytale.
For Ian McLaughlin, it was love at first sight, and Tarah took only slightly longer to come around. As she recounts their love story, Tarah alternates speaking about Ian in past and present tense, a testament to the closeness they shared, and the way she still feels his presence when she talks about their love.
In 2014, Tarah was working as a waitress in Texas, not far from where Ian was stationed at Fort Hood. He came in on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday. Tarah was used to groups of exuberant military members coming in to celebrate, but Ian stood out. During his time in her section, he ordered drinks, chatted happily and made her laugh.
“Ian was very short, like 5’ 6” and I’m 5’7”, so he was not my type at the time,” Tarah laughs. “He knows this. It was an ongoing joke all the time.”
Despite his physical stature, “he has a personality like he was 7 feet tall, so it’s amazing,” Tarah shares, with a tinkling laugh, fondly recalling how Ian won her over with his energy that made her just want to be near him. Despite that feeling, she refused to give him her number. She didn’t think she was interested.
“He came in every day for the next thirteen days and sat in my section,” she recalls. “He was persistent.”
That persistence finally paid off for Ian McLaughlin. Tarah agreed to just one quick, casual ice cream date. On their first date, Ian told Tarah that he knew she was the one. Tarah tried to deny it, but she knew he was right.
They were married just one month later.
The Army moved the McLaughlins to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where they immediately started their family.
Their numbers increased quickly. Tarah and Ian welcomed a little girl in October of 2016, and another in late September of 2017. “Our daughters are exactly 51 weeks apart,” Tarah explains. “Irish twins.”
After their second daughter was born, Tarah and Ian McLaughlin knew they wanted more children. Ian was hoping for a son. They started trying right away.
Tarah sadly miscarried their third pregnancy on her birthday in 2018. “Ian was absolutely amazing through the whole thing. I think he and I shared how hurt we were to the same extent. He was devastated,” she shares.
But their wish for a son did finally come true. In May of 2019, Tarah welcomed their son, Ian the second, while her husband Ian was away for deployment training. Ian returned home in late June before shipping out for his final deployment in early July 2020. “He was only with our son for about eight days,” Tarah says quietly.
While Ian was deployed, Tarah McLaughlin discovered an organization called Operation Kid Comfort, a program of the Armed Services YMCA for the children of deployed parents.
According to their website, “Operation Kid Comfort provides quilts and pillows to military children of deployed active-duty service men and women. Volunteers lovingly create hand-crafted, custom photo-transfer quilts and pillows to help children cope with the stress and sadness that comes with being separated from a parent during deployment.”
“I didn’t know about Operation Kid Comfort at all,” Tarah says. Despite living on a military base and knowing hundreds of families with deployed parents, nobody had ever told her that there was an organization that could provide her children with a custom quilt to bring them peace while their father was away.
She found the organization on Pinterest, and sent them an email. They responded almost immediately, and explained that all she had to do was submit photos of Ian and the kids and then wait. The blankets would be made by volunteers, and provided to her children free of charge.
“I got the call that [the blankets] were ready about two days after Ian’s passing,” Tarah sighs. “They still use [their quilts] to this day. They are literally a blanket of comfort to my children because there’s pictures of their father all over them.”
The blankets were so meaningful to her family that Tarah McLaughlin reached out to the organizers of Operation Kid Comfort to see how she could help. She has chosen to use her voice and Ian’s story to spread the word about this amazing group of volunteers and the way they provide a little bit of relief to children who are missing their parent while they’re away.
Tarah McLaughlin is so proud to be able to tell Ian’s story and share his legacy—the little bits of him that live on through his three beautiful children.
“I want to tell people that you can survive the trauma of this. I don’t think I ever will be one hundred percent, but I’m here every day, waking up and trying to be the best mother for them because they deserve that. They’re three beautiful pieces of Ian and my love story, essentially, and I don’t feel like I’d be doing Ian any justice if I wasn’t trying to be the best person I can be for them,” she declares.
If you’d like to support other military families like the McLaughlins by partnering with Operation Kid Comfort, you can donate to the ASYMCA or contact them on their website about volunteer opportunities in your local area.