Sean MacFarland knew from a very young age that, like his father and grandfather before him, he would carry on the family tradition of serving in the U.S. Army.
As a child growing up in Canajoharie, Sean wore a web belt with a canteen on it almost every day, his parents recalled, and would play for hours on end with the plastic soldiers that generations ago were a staple of any boy’s toy chest.
And while it wouldn’t surprise many to see a boy’s preoccupation with military life, in Sean’s case, his childhood war scenarios may actually have been more akin to training than play.
“No one could have predicted that he would one day command the coalition of 60 nations in this current war,” said Nancy and Garth MacFarland, in an email about their son’s remarkable rise from West Point class of 1981 to heading the fight against ISIS.
Last year Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, 57, a three-star general in the U.S. Army, was named commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But before all that — before West Point, the First Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan, the book about his liberating a major city in Iraq from al-Qaeda and landing on TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world — there was just Sean Barry MacFarland, the Boy Scout from Canajoharie who ran track and cross-country and graduated high school in 1977.
“Our memories of Sean as a child were that he always seemed to have a uniform on,” said the MacFarlands.
His grandfather, who graduated West Point in 1931, had given Sean a small uniform for Christmas one year and his father, Garth, a retired army officer, was a source of surplus military equipment that Sean put to good use.
“As he got older, he would draw battle pictures of The Civil War and WWII,” wrote his parents in response to questions from The Gazette. “He knew at a very early age he wanted to go to West Point.”
The MacFarlands said their family comes from a “long line of answering the call to serve our country,” dating back to the Revolutionary War and on through the Civil War, Spanish American War, WWII, Korea and into the modern era with Sean.
Signs of his enduring interest in the military extended through high school, where he took advanced classes and outside of school achieved the rank of Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America.
“While growing up in Canajoharie, his goal was always on his mind,” said the MacFarlands. “It was his destiny to return to Iraq, to again liberate Ramadi as he had done 10 years before.”
A book published in 2010 called “A Chance in Hell” tells the story of the army’s First Brigade in Ramadi, of which Sean was commander, which was tasked in 2006 with wresting the Iraqi city from al-Qaeda without destroying it.
Author Jim Michaels, a seasoned war correspondent and former Marine, wrote in the introduction that it was hard to be optimistic about Iraq in 2006. He remembers hearing about the Ramadi operation in the lobby of a Baghdad hotel by a State Department source he used on stories for USA Today.
Michaels was skeptical.
“At best, Ramadi would make an interesting color story,” he wrote. “I was finishing up a reporting trip and it would be several months before I was back in Iraq. I figured the story could wait.”
As it turned out, the story couldn’t wait. In a matter of months Sean MacFarland’s brigade turned Ramadi from an insurgent stronghold to a model of stability, wrote Michaels. He traveled to Germany with an Army team that was assigned to learn how the First Brigade accomplished the Ramadi mission so effectively.
“Other units and commanders came and went in Ramadi,” wrote Michaels. “MacFarland saw something many others missed. He didn’t fall back on regulations and policy guidance. He was given latitude and he took every inch of it. When his higher command wanted to put the brakes on his initiative, he pushed back.”
Nancy and Garth MacFarland said in their email that when their son called them last year about being named commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, they knew he was the right man for the job of retaking Ramadi, which Islamic State forces conquered last May.
The MacFarlands said their son would use his heart, soul and military mind to accomplish the goal, and Ramadi was ridden of Islamic State forces last December.
“We as a family are so very proud of Sean as a son, brother, husband, father and military leader,” they wrote. “All five of his siblings always knew he was a leader very early on.”
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who nominated MacFarland for this year’s TIME magazine list, concurred with Michaels’ assessment of MacFarland as a creative and effective leader. McCain said he first met MacFarland during the first Ramadi operation in 2006.
“Iraq was in the grip of a seemingly intractable sectarian conflict,” said McCain in his nomination letter. “But MacFarland had the courage to adapt and innovate. His support of the Anbar Awakening was the model for the successful surge strategy that broke the back of al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
McCain added that he can “think of no better commander than MacFarland to lead U.S. and coalition forces in destroying the Islamic State.”
The coalition, made up of 60 nations that together provide everything from soldiers and fighter jets to helmets and humanitarian aid, is now focused on retaking Mosul, according reports from the Associated Press. Islamic State forces have controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, for the past two years.
But back home, far away from the front lines, Sean’s parents fondly remember him as a boy growing up in Canajoharie, wearing out the uniform his grandfather gave him as he played out less dangerous missions with the green toy soldiers.
“I seem to get lost in thoughts of his childhood,” Nancy MacFarland wrote in the email.
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.