I knew Bill Cahir in the peripheral way of the small town.
His mother and mine are friends.
We grew up attending the same church.
His brother and I were classmates and continue to be friends.
Bill graduated State College Area High School in 1986, four years before his brother Bart and I did. He earned an English degree from Penn State in 1990, four years before Bart would graduate with a petroleum engineering degree and years before I earned my journalism degree from Penn State.
After college, he went to Washington to work on a Senate Committee for Sens. Edward Kennedy (who, incidentally, died Tuesday night) and Harris Wofford.
Bill later became a journalist, first working for the now defunct Newhouse News Service Washington.
I remember feeling extremely impressed when I ran into him at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., circa 1997. My reporting professor had brought my class to D.C. for a press briefing at the Pentagon and some kind of reception in those hallowed rooms. I introduced myself as "Bart’s friend" to this guy with a lot of personality, obvious talent for communication - written or otherwise, and an inviting wide grin.
Bill was working for the Washington, D.C., bureau of The Express-Times of Easton at the time.
A few years later, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Bill pursued what he was most passionate about. Despite the fact that at 34 he was technically too old to enlist, he talked his way into an age waiver and joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2003.
It was something he felt he had to do.
Bill served two combat tours of duty in Iraq in 2004-05 and 2006-07 as the lead turret gunner in a Humvee, according to the Centre Daily Times.
After returning home, Bill decided to take it easy … and run for office.
He moved from Virginia to Pennsylvania, pursuing yet another way to serve his country. Bill ran for a 5th Congressional District seat in 2008, competing in a three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Republican Rep. John Peterson, who retired. Bill lost the primary to Clearfield County Commissioner Mark McCracken, who was, in turn, defeated by Republican Glenn Thompson in what the CDT reported is an overwhelmingly Republican district.
The Express-Times reported that after losing the primary, Cahir said, "My journalism career is over. I'll talk to the Marine Corps and see what they want me to do and talk to my wife and see what she wants me to do."
Bill returned to Washington and worked for a time for a consulting firm before being reactivated by the Marines.
In the spring of 2009, Marine Sgt. William John Cahir deployed to Afghanistan. His wife, Rene Browne, a Washington attorney, was already pregnant with twin girls — their first children.
According to the CDT, Bill was a sergeant in the 4th Civil Affairs Group, one of about 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan troops deployed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province. Per published reports, the province is a fertile opium poppy area, a Taliban stronghold and is home to much "fierce fighting."
On August 13, 2009, at age 40, Bill was killed in action by enemy fire while his civilian affairs unit was attached to a Marine infantry unit. Only one shot (that was determined not to have originated from a sniper) was fired, and no shots were returned. No other Marines were killed, according to Marine Maj. Jerry Kalogiannis, 4th Civil Affairs Group spokesman. He told the CDT that Cahir was the first 4th CAG Marine — about 150 are in the group — to be killed in action since the group deployed to Afghanistan in May.
He is the first person I know to be killed in this war.
"What're the odds?" a friend asked rhetorically, sadly during calling hours in a ballroom at The Penn Stater hotel in University Park on Sunday afternoon. He was speaking of the single shot that fatally struck Bill.
"It's just not fair," are the words that kept running through my brain, as I waited in line with my mom, high school friends, teachers, Marines, a Penn State football coach or two, and the president of the university, among others. Included in that line was a high school classmate, now a Marine and father of two, awaiting deployment to Iraq. I'm not sure if it's his second or third deployment.
We all wanted an audience with Bill's parents, siblings and widow. Some people made video tributes intended to be shown to Bill's twins at some point. Not knowing him well, I did not.
Over three hours, thousands of friends and supporters waited in a long snaking line (which I heard was up to a 45 min. wait at times) to greet and offer condolences to the pregnant Rene and the entire Cahir family — mom and dad Mary Anne and John, sisters Ellen and Kathryn, and the youngest sibling, my friend Bart, who had flown back to Pennsylvania from his current job post in Indonesia with his new wife, Andrea.
The part of the overnight flight he was most assuredly awake for, gripping the armrests of his seat tightly, Bart said, was traveling through the darkness over Afghanistan — the country that claimed his brother Bill’s life just days before.
Among the definitions of a hero, according to Merriam-Webster, are "an illustrious warrior; a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities; and one that shows great courage." The definition of patriot is "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests."
Bill Cahir was all those things.
He served his country.
He died for his country.
And he was also a regular guy — a husband, brother, son and journalist — excited for the arrival of his twin daughters this December.
He was a guy who, like so many others, served valiantly in both Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be rewarded by being called back again and again.
What are the odds of surviving three tours? Slim indeed.
With countless others who died in service of our country, Bill Cahir will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. He will posthumuously be awarded the Purple Heart Sept. 13 in Washington.
Help keep alive Bill's belief in family, service, community and country alive. Contribute to the Bill Cahir Memorial Fund to support his wife and expected twin children.