Lt. Col. Michael J. McMahon

Courant Staff Writer

Army Lt. Col. Michael J. McMahon, who grew up in West Hartford and graduated from Conard High School, died Nov. 27, 2004 in a plane crash in the mountains near Bamiyan, Afghanistan. McMahon, 41, left a wife, also a lieutenant colonel, and three children.

A U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who grew up in West Hartford died in a plane crash high in the snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan Saturday, the Pentagon said Wednesday, apparently becoming the highest ranking Army officer killed in that country during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lt. Col. Michael J. McMahon, 41, died in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, with two other soldiers and three civilians when their civilian contract plane crashed atop Baba Mountain, which rises to 16,600 feet and was covered in fresh snow, said Ghulam Mohammed, a senior police official in Bamiyan.

McMahon was the 20th person with Connecticut ties to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2002. He is to be buried next week at West Point, a family member said.

McMahon died on a return flight from a division headquarters meeting at Bagram Air Force Base, a family member said. He had been in the country for six months.

"The indications we have is that [the plane] got into a valley and tried to gain altitude quickly," Maj. Gen. Eric Olson said. "The pilot apparently recognized that he was not going to be able to gain altitude quickly enough and tried to make a very dramatic turn, didn't make it and crashed into a very narrow valley."

A plane carrying the bodies of the six victims back to the United States left Bagram, Afghanistan, on Tuesday evening, bound for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, military spokesman Maj. Mark McCann said.

Killed with McMahon were Chief Warrant Officer Travis W. Grogan, 31, of Moore, Okla.; and Spec. Harley D. Miller, 21, of Spokane, Wash., as well as three civilian crew members aboard the plane.

According to a U.S. Army website,, only one other lieutenant colonel has died in Operation Enduring Freedom, and he died in Turkey.

Nora Boyer, one of McMahon's sisters, said the family learned of his disappearance on Saturday.

"Between him and me it was always, `Mike, are you having the time of your life?'" she said Wednesday night in a phone call from her home in New Jersey. "And he'd be saying, `Yep, Nora, I'm having the time of my life.'"

"He was a man who loved his troops and would take care of them," Boyer said.

In addition to being a leader, her brother was also a juggler, so adept at juggling rocks that locals would invite him into their homes to juggle, and then turn in their weapons, Boyer said.

Born at Fort Campbell, Ky., and raised in West Hartford, McMahon graduated in 1981 from Conard High School, where he was a cheerleader. "He was a real rah-rah guy," Boyer said. He was the son of Elizabeth and retired Lt. Col. Dennis McMahon. McMahon's stepmother was the late Maria O'Neil McMahon, a Hartford native and former professor in the social work department at St. Joseph College in West Hartford.

McMahon graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1985 and was commissioned in the aviation branch. He married his wife, Jeanette, in 1987. She is also a lieutenant colonel. They have three children.

Beginning his service as a platoon leader and executive officer in the 101st Airborne Division, McMahon would serve in various capacities at home and abroad in Europe and Korea before taking control of the 3rd Squadron, 4th U.S. Cavalry at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii on June 24, 2003.

In Afghanistan, McMahon commanded Task Force Saber, which covers the western region of the country, according to military websites. Under his command were the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and Company B, 193rd Aviation Intermediate Maintenance, Hawaii Army National Guard. Together, they were responsible for provincial reconstruction teams supporting security and reconstruction efforts in the cities of Herat and Farah, the military said.

McMahon believed in preparing to be great by being good at the basics, he said in a statement of philosophy on a military website. "Fundamental soldiering (marksmanship, common tasks, force protection) must be second nature to all troopers," he wrote. "[T]he chain of command is sacred and is what truly sets us apart from those we've sworn to defend."

"The health of the squadron is measured by the leadership we practice, the discipline we demand, and the expectation of safety we require," he wrote.

McMahon had just completed a monthlong set of missions into the mountains, where he was commander, when he called his family members on Thanksgiving, Boyer said.

And he had a lot to be thankful for - especially his recently received birthday package of a family movie, an Army football T-shirt, and a banged-up bicycle helmet, she said.

The helmet was to remind him to keep his combat helmet on when he took off his helicopter pilot's helmet, she said. Because one time, he didn't.

"He quelled some sort of uprising outside of Herat when he was involved in rescuing people from a U.N. compound," Boyer said, adding that it was then that he was hit in the head with a rock in the process - an incident for which he got a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, family members said.

So when they talked on Thanksgiving, McMahon told his sister that he'd wear the bicycle helmet with pride. "He said he was going to put the helmet on and try to take care of himself better," she said.

Kelly Cook, another sister, said her brother was "charismatic, energetic, the pied piper, people followed him everywhere, and he didn't say a bad thing about anybody. He'd ignore you if you did."

And he was a multi-tasker, she said. "He's the only person I knew who could watch TV, work on his computer, and beat all his nieces and nephews at Skip-Bo at the same time," she said. Skip-Bo is a card game, she said.

"They'd say, `Mike, Mike, pay attention,'" she said. "And he'd say, `I am paying attention.' And then he'd beat everybody."

"Our hearts are broken," she said. "My heart is broken."

The plane was a fixed-wing CASA 212 and was designed to fly in and out of the kind of short, rough air strips used to supply American forces deployed in remote areas of the country to search for Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

The U.S. Air Force contracted the plane from the Florida-based Presidential Airways.

McCann said the plane's flight recorder had been retrieved, but it was not clear what it showed about the crash.

According to military news reports, McMahon's soldiers and others from Kandahar Airfield were about more than waging war - this July, his soldiers volunteered in Shah Wali Kot, a town two hours north of Kandahar for "Making A Difference Day."

"Those windows were full of bricks from when the Taliban used the building as a jail. We're here to help [clean up the school] and make this a community project," McMahon told a military public affairs officer for an article published on the 25th Infantry's website.

The town's children helped in the effort, he said.

"They're the future of Afghanistan. They're the ones that jump in and join us," he said.

A private prayer service for the three soldiers was scheduled for today at the base.

An Associated Press report is included in this story.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now