Every day is Memorial Day for the family of Master Sergeant Robert Mark Horrigan. The weeks leading up to the holiday and through June 17, though, mark an intensified period of mourning for Robert’s identical twin brother and American Bladesmith Society master smith John Horrigan of Elite Knives. Robert was a member of C Squadron, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment, Delta Force, JSOC and June 17, 2005, was the date he was killed in action in Al Qa’im, Iraq. Gentlemanly, soft-spoken, John says, “Excuse my language, but I’m an asshole for about two weeks” leading up to Memorial Day. And with that, you know that no matter how courteous, no matter how elite the warrior pedigree of either man, John knows exactly how hard it is for Gold Star* families and fellow veterans, and he’s willing to get in the dirt and help.
The Horrigan twins learned to hunt and fish growing up on a farm in Limestone, Maine, which is in Aroostook County, so far north it might as well be in New Brunswick, Canada. When the boys were 10, knowing jobs would be scarce, the family moved to Florida. The humidity exacerbated their father’s emphysema and tuberculosis, however, so two years later thy moved to Austin, Texas. John and Robert enlisted together and advanced to become U.S. Army Rangers, serving in 3rd Battalion, 75 Ranger Regiment. After three years, John left the military—for love. He had met Donna when he was 17 and she was almost 15. He has now been married to his high school sweetheart for 29 years. They have a daughter and a son, with one grandchild and another on the way. “I just knew the military life was not for her,” John said.
John performed security for the U.S. Department of the Treasury for a short while and then became a deputy with the Travis County Sheriffs Office as well as a fireman. In 1983 John made his first knife. After his brother’s death, he made a commemorative knife for Bob’s unit and another for President George W. Bush. He makes everything from swords, daggers and the occasional tomahawk to camp knives, hunters and bowies. John also continues to make his brother’s design, the Bob Horrigan Military Fighter. You can read more about the brothers and their knives in an article by Kevin Jones that ran in the December 2010 issue of BLADE Magazine entitled, “Twin Brothers, Makers and Heroes.”
While love and love of knives determined the course of one brother’s life, the warrior spirit could not be quenched in the other. Over the course of his 19 ½-year career, which culminated in Special Forces, Robert, who his brothers-in arms called Bob, deployed five times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. “Badass” and “real deal” can be overused, but not with Bob Horrigan. Delta operator George E. Hand IV wrote two eulogies of Bob for SOFREP News that get to the heart of the quintennial gentleman warrior: “Delta’s Robert Horrigan: A Better Man Than I” and “Delta Forces’ Own Robert Horrigan: Dwarfed By The Presence of Giants.”
Bob did not have to go on his last mission. He was closing in on retirement. He had plans. He was going home to his wife and daughter and he was going to make knives with his brother. Five years before, John had introduced Bob to knifemaking, and he liked it. While living in base housing on Fort Bragg Bob would run an extension cord outside to work on his creations. “I’m not sure they would have been happy about if they knew,” John says, a warmth in his voice. Like John, Bob loved the artistry of knifemaking, but he only had time for making combat knives.
John continues to live out this dichotomy. “I could make a lot more money making fighters,” he said. After banging out 40 of them, though, he longs to delve into the art of the craft. Then, when he’s deep into a showpiece and it seems like it will never be finished, he begins to long for the refreshing simplicity of hammering away on combat knives. “I flip flop,” he says. “I used to have six or seven pieces, 80 percent done” for BLADE Show. He laughs about what he refers to as his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Now he works on two at a time and finishes them before he moves on to the next one. After the show he enjoys being able to relax and resume his own pace.
So although Robert didn’t have to go on that last mission, he wanted to be with his unit. And with that decision, the dream the twins shared of living out their days together with their families and making knifes ended—hard, on the other side of a breached door. The objective was to sneak in, target Abu al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq, and get out. The problem was that by the time the mission was underway, the enemy knew the Americans were coming. Bob Horrigan was the number-one man. He got inside the room and was immediately engaged in an intense firefight. The number-two man, Master Sergeant Michael L. McNulty—also a twin—was shot down on the threshold. While teammates extracted Mike from the doorway, Bob took hits to his femoral artery and head. Both men held on while their brethren simultaneously continued the battle, plugged their wounds and extracted them to a secondary airfield approximately 1000 meters away because a closer one was under attack. Both men were alive when they were put on the aircraft and when they landed at the medical facility. Heart massage was performed on Bob. But, as John explained, when you’ve been hit that many times, when you’ve lost that much blood, no matter how much they hold on, it’s only a matter of time before they succumb.
The part about both men being twins, was only the first of endless seeming coincidences. Robert’s wife kept his remains in an urn at home for a few years before he was interred, but John also wanted to visit the grave of the man who had died with his brother. He made the trip to Arlington National Cemetery, and when asked who he was looking for, gave McNulty’s name. There were three men also standing at the information desk. “Who did you say you were looking for?” one of them asked John. John repeated the name. He tried to introduce himself. Being an identical twin, the men already knew who John was. They were from his brother’s unit, and they too had come to visit McNulty’s grave.
Another time the Horrigans had planned a family trip back to Maine. Many people were involved and Donna was looking at a particular house to rent. It was expensive so John suggested checking Craigslist. She found the same house listed for less. As the process continued, the twin’s sister, Lisa, began to suspect a scam. John wasn’t sure at first, especially since he was so used to dealing with wire transfers through the course of selling his knives internationally. He was busy in Boston and directed his sister to handle it. On the way to Maine, John thought, ‘Maybe it is a scam,’ and called the Ellsworth Police Department. A detective, Dotty Small, confirmed that it was indeed a scam. John called Lisa who was standing on the porch of the house, which already had tenants living in it. John told her what he had learned. In an event to commemorate Maine’s heroes called The Summit Project, Detective Dotty Small had hiked Baxter Mountain carrying a stone with the initials of a fallen warrior on it: M.R.H.
One night at the firehouse, John had a dream. In it, Robert came to him and told him to look up Al Qa’im. “I’m thinking, ‘I’ll never remember that,’” John said. Al Qa’im was a center for insurgency near the Syrian border, and the town in which Bob was killed. It means ‘I have risen.’” John pauses. “Another translation is ‘I have ascended.’”
It is like this all the time, Bob seemingly orchestrating serendipitous exchanges for his family and especially his twin. “I lost half of me,” John said. It took me a year and a half to get beyond wanting to blow my head off,” he admitted. “God really had to hit me with a sledge hammer…It’s not about you anymore. It’s about Me.”
John and Robert’s mother was a novice nun. After five years in the convent, she knew she wanted to have children so she left. The Horrigan children were given a Catholic upbringing. “In the Army, you drift away,” John said. About two years before he died, Robert told John that he was coming back to God. John accepted the news in his easygoing manner, but perhaps didn’t think as much of it as he does now in hindsight.
“All this macho ‘I can handle it.’ Well, obviously, you can’t. You have to talk to someone,” John said. “There has to be a support network, and having God can help.” John is quiet for a moment. “Bob was a sniper,” he reveals. Bob told John that he’d killed 50 to 60 enemy combatants. “He did not have PTSD, that I know of,” he emphasized. Bob told John that he was OK, because he was “alright with God.” The Old Testament is filled with killing, John said. “Evil exists in this world and you have to exterminate it. It’s like when you have an infestation of bugs. You have to kill every one or they’ll come back. When you’re fighting an ideology where (the enemy is) hiding behind women and children, it’s like a cancer of the highest magnitude” that must be eradicated.
“Memorial Day is not a happy time,” John said. He acknowledges the day by telling people about his brother and the tragedy of leaving a hurting wife, 12-year-old daughter, mother, siblings and especially a twin with whom he did everything. But perhaps because of the leadership ingrained in him as a Ranger, John understands that he cannot be consumed by the grief of his own loss. God channels his pain in a way that reaches people just like him, veterans and family members who are wracked with unbearable grief. John recently lost a firefighting co-worker to suicide. It left him shocked because the man was always so cheerful “Everyone has demons. Call me. We'll fight them together.”
Knifemaker John Horrigan Remembers Fallen Twin Brother Robert Horrigan
*Gold Star families are those that have lost a service member in combat. You will see the vertical red-rimmed banners most commonly on vehicles. Each blue star represents a family member serving in the military, while a gold star represents a fallen service member.
‘Robert's Favorite Fighter' Is Reviewed in this Issue of BLADE
So what does fellow Special Forces member Kim Breed think of Elite Knives' Bob Horrigan's Military Fighter? Read his review right away in this downloadable version of the October 2011 issue of BLADE for $5.95.
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