Tiffany McKay-Mortimer, 34

Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph McKay, 51

Died June 26, 2008

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First, the neurosurgeon removed a portion of Tiffany McKay-Mortimer’s skull. Then he drilled away a small piece of bone behind her left eye to expose a potentially lethal aneurysm. Finally, he used a titanium clip to separate the aneurysm from her artery, depriving the dangerous bulge of any more blood.

The surgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in January 2011 took just a few hours. Tiffany’s recovery from it has taken years.

The Army staff sergeant, who once escorted military vehicles around Iraq, couldn’t drive. She needed to relearn how to speak. She didn’t know how to stand up or sit down. She had to be bathed and fed. She couldn’t brush her own teeth. She had double vision.

Through months of brutal physical therapy at Fort Benning, Ga., Tiffany longed for her father, who inspired her to join the military. But Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph McKay, a member of the New York Army National Guard, had been killed June 26, 2008, when a roadside bomb and rocket-propelled grenade hit his convoy south of Kabul. He was just days away from his 52nd birthday.

“He would have fed me. Pushed me to make me walk or sit up longer,” said Tiffany, 34, a statuesque mother of two with long hair and strong arms. “My recovery time would have probably been half the time. He would have never left my side.”

Tiffany and her father at her wedding on July 1, 2000, in Queens. (Courtesy of Tiffany McKay-Mortimer)

McKay had always been there for his daughter, taking the oldest of his three children to armory balls and watching boxing matches — his favorite sport — with her in their living room.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he’d pulled bodies out of the rubble of the twin towers and guarded Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.

Tiffany followed him into the military in 2002, enlisting in the Army. By 2005, father and daughter were both in Iraq. After mortars rained down on Tiffany’s small compound near Baghdad International Airport, McKay arrived to comfort and bolster her.

When there were no other soldiers around, she cried, but her father told her to stop. “He just said: ‘You can’t be scared. You can’t be out here and afraid.’ ”

She needed that toughness five years later, when she learned the results of a brain scan at a military base in South Korea. She’d been searching for the cause of chronic headaches she’d been having for almost a year after a Humvee accident. The scan showed the aneurysm.

“Sometimes, you just want your dad when your head is killing you.”

Her neurosurgeon didn’t think it was the source of the headaches, but it still needed to be fixed. Left untreated, the aneurysm could fill with too much blood and rupture, potentially disabling or killing her. But the surgery also carried risks — stroke or even death.

She and her children flew back to the United States. She was worried during the long flight that the high altitude would put too much pressure on her brain. As for the surgery, she said, “I was prepared to die.”

Tiffany is divorced and has full custody of her kids. It fell to her mother and grandmother to take turns looking after her and Jocelyn, now 10, and Jonathan, now 6.

So much of Tiffany’s rehabilitation involved managing her pain levels with nerve blockers, Botox and Vicodin. Her mother bought dark curtains for her bedroom because sunlight triggered piercing headaches, and she massaged Tiffany’s forehead and feet at night.

“But sometimes,” she said, “you just want your dad when your head is killing you, and you want to lay in his lap, and you want him to massage your head.”

Tiffany, who was medically discharged from the Army in 2013 and now lives outside Atlanta, has made huge progress.

She is starting to use an elliptical machine. She is relearning how to drive a car, though the farthest she’s gone is to her kids’ bus stop a few minutes from her home.

“Right now, I am trying to do things on my own,” she said. Her father would want that for her.

Faces of the Fallen

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