Captain Craig Mullaney knew it was a dangerous mission. He had led his platoon to a section of Afghanistan called Losano Ridge, known to be a haven for al-Qaeda fighters. So, Mullaney could not have had any illusions.
And yet, when he heard over the radio that one of his soldiers had been killed in the fighting, he was forced to ask himself if all of the years he’d spent training for a horrible moment such as this were in any way adequate.
Mullaney had to call on more than just the years he’d spent at West Point, as well as the grueling training which turned him into an Army Ranger.
Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but there were also skills that the Irish Christian brothers and his immigrant grandmother taught him.
Mullaney would go onto to complete his service in Afghanistan. There, he led an infantry platoon which patrolled the notorious Afghan-Pakistan border. Mullaney was with the 10th Mountain Division conducting a wide range of operations, providing humanitarian aid and fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
After his tour of duty, Mullaney ended up working on the Barack Obama presidential campaign. In fact, by some accounts Mullaney became Obama’s point man on Afghanistan.
He writes about these topics, as well as his Co. Cavan roots and “blue collar Irish” Rhode Island upbringing in a new book, "The Unforgiving Minute," which shot up The New York Times best-seller list when it was released in mid-March and was still on the list this week.
"The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education" is a close look mainly at the complications of the Afghan War. But it is also about one Irish American family’s joy and struggles.
Indeed, Mullaney is just the latest in a long line of Irish Catholics who’ve distinguished themselves in American military service.
Early in the book, he says his grandmother -- “an immigrant’s daughter from Co. Cavan” -- told mesmerizing stories which, at an early age, instilled in young Craig the power of words.
Meanwhile, attending “Mass every week taught me to love ritual and the rich symbolism of the church,” Mullaney writes. Later, he adds, “The Irish Christian brothers who administered Bishop Hendricken, my all-male high school, ruled with clear standards.”
Of course, as he noted during a recent return trip to Bishop Hendricken, there’s only so much a Catholic School can teach you about surviving on the battlefield.
He told a hushed crowd of 1,000 students seated in the Hendricken gymnasium, “When it’s no longer about adrenaline and adventure, it becomes about the guy to your left and the guy to your right. What courage is is not something I knew at Bishop Hendricken, reading "The Red Badge of Courage" from my summer reading list.”
Critics have applauded Mullaney’s book, in part because -- though he has gone on to work for President Obama and may land a job at the Pentagon -- it does not come off as a partisan book.
The book has been lauded for clearly and honestly conveying the life which led Mullaney to Afghanistan, and the challenges he faced while there.
Indeed, life away from the battlefield was not easy for Mullaney. Yes, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, an amazing opportunity for someone who notes in his own bio that he is a “blue collar Irish Catholic.”
However, just before Mullaney shipped off for Afghanistan his father left the family, a jarring experience which provides some of the most emotional passages in "The Unforgiving Minute."
Meanwhile, military challenges have not ended for the Mullaney family. The book is dedicated to Mullaney’s brother, Gary.
Gary served in Iraq and will likely go to Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s planned expansion of troops in the region.
*Irish Voice columnist Tom Deignan will discuss “Irish Saints and Sinners” in Manhattan on Saturday April 18 at 2:30 p.m. at the Ottendorfer Branch Library, 135 Second Avenue. The same talk will be given Tuesday, April 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Kills Branch Library, 56 Giffords Lane, Staten Island.