Keely Quinlan, 18

Army Chief Warrant Officer John Quinlan, 36

Died Feb. 18, 2007

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Keely Quinlan picked at an apple fritter as a gray-haired Army colonel methodically debriefed the freshman about her first semester at American University.

How had she done on her finals, John Evans wanted to know. Well so far, she told him. When would she head home to Tennessee for winter break? Soon, the 18-year-old replied.

And what grades did she expect to make this year? “No less than a B-minus” in any class, said Keely, prompting a thumbs-up from her lunch companion across the table.

They were the sort of questions Keely’s father might have asked her, had he been there. Except he wasn’t.

Eight years ago, on a cold, clear-sky Sunday morning in Clarksville, Tenn., the bell rang at Keely’s front door. She opened it and found two strangers in uniform. One was a chaplain. The other was John Evans.

Keely, who was 10, stared at their shiny shoes. Then she screamed.

“I knew,” Keely said.

Evans had come because he was the commander of her father’s battalion. On Feb. 18, 2007, Chief Warrant Officer John Quinlan, 36, had been piloting a Chinook helicopter in southern Afghanistan when it crashed, killing him and seven others among the 22 on board.

To Keely, he was “Dad,” unless she really wanted something. Then, “Daddy.” She and her younger sisters — Madeline, now 16, and Erin, now 11 — knew him as the biggest kid in the family. Quinlan was the first on the trampoline he set up for the girls one Christmas, doing goofy toe touches high in the air. Mustachioed and 6-foot-4, he once showed up to a Halloween party at Keely’s Catholic elementary school dressed as a grandmother in curlers and pantyhose. “I was mortified,” she said.

They last spoke on Valentine’s Day, the week before he died. He had just shaved his extravagant auburn mustache for an official photo, and was scheduled to come home before month’s end.

“Can you put your mustache back on?” she pleaded.

“It doesn’t work that fast,” Quinlan explained, then promised he would try.

“I love you,” she told him. “I love you, too,” he responded. “See you soon.”

The moment at the door haunted Evans. At the funeral, Quinlan’s wife, Julie, asked him to avoid Keely because he was wearing the same uniform from the day of the notification. Evans, now 48, feared she would never want anything to do with him.

“I’m that reminder,” he said, “of the worst day of her life.”

He thought about Keely often and occasionally saw her at an annual Fort Campbell remembrance. Then, when she was 13, Evans took a chance. Already friends with her mom on Facebook, he sent Keely a friend request. Evans wept when she accepted.

They began to exchange messages, and he checked on her each year in mid-February. “You are an amazing young woman,” he wrote in 2012, “your Dad would be so proud of you.”

Last spring, both realized they would be moving to Washington. Keely to study journalism at American, and Evans to work as a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He took her to lunch at the Army and Navy Club. He and his wife invited her to have dinner at their home in Northern Virginia. She ate pot pie and watched the Army officer talk to his two daughters, 6 and 7; he reminded Keely of her own dad.

Evans is, in a way he never could have envisioned, an indispensable thread between Keely and her father. “This is a guy who got to see my dad,” she said.

Left: Keely Quinlan said her dad, John, loved doing goofy toe touches on the trampoline. Right: Her dad once showed up to a Halloween party at Keely’s school dressed in curlers and pantyhose. “I was mortified,” said Keely, at center dressed in black. (Courtesy of Keely Quinlan)

At their December lunch, Evans reminisced about Quinlan’s booming laugh and wry sense of humor. About his command of helicopters. “A far better pilot than I was,” he said.

On the day of the crash, Quinlan, flying with no visibility through an unexpected winter storm, lost an engine but kept the Chinook nearly upright as it plummeted to earth, saving the lives of 14 people. As Evans spoke, Keely chewed her thumb and stared intently at him through her dark-rimmed glasses, capturing every word.

Two hours after they arrived, Evans checked his watch. He had to return to work, he said, but they’d get together again after she returned from her break.

She hugged him, smiled and said: “Always good to see you.”

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.