Background photo by Sgt. Michael Kropiewnicki, Photo of Cahir courtesy of his family.

René Elizabeth Browne was on her second date with Bill Cahir in 2003 when he told her he was considering enlisting in the Marine Corps. Cahir was 34 years old and worked as a Washington, D.C. correspondent for Newhouse News Service.

“I was very surprised because I knew Bill in such a different context, as a newspaper reporter, seeming too old to think about enlisting in the military,” Browne recalled to Task & Purpose. “The more we talked about it, the more I realized how little I truly knew him and how impressed I was by his motivation to be of service.”

Cahir would ultimately deploy as a Marine to Iraq twice during the leadup to the Sunni Awakening. On Aug. 13, 2009, he was killed while deployed to Afghanistan. The day after his unit was scheduled to rotate home, his wife gave birth to twins

“In the Marine Corps itself, I think Bill found a community of purpose and service that he had been missing up to that point,” Browne said. “He absolutely loved being a Marine and he cared extremely deeply about his fellow Marines. Of course, Bill was a little bit older than many of the people that he joined with and was seen as — and certainly acted as — a mentor to a lot of younger Marines,” Browne said. “I think he enjoyed being able to share his experience and his perspectives and make a difference in the lives of people who were effectively still growing up.”

This Memorial Day weekend, I am honored to pay tribute to Cahir with whom I worked at the Express-Times newspaper in Easton, Pennsylvania. Fair winds and following seas, Bill.

By the time Cahir told Browne that we wanted to join the Marines, he had been working toward his goal for some time. He ultimately needed a waiver for his age to go to boot camp with recruits 15 years his junior.

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“He explained to me that he had been working as a newspaper reporter on 9/11 and had followed the attacks of Sept. 11 — thankfully as a reporter — but ultimately felt like a bystander and wanted to participate in serving his country, and defending his country,” Browne said.

In an article that Cahir subsequently wrote about his experiences at Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, he explained that he felt joining the Marines would provide his last opportunity to serve. Cahir had considered enlisting in the military after college and then again after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but each time he hesitated.

“In October 2003, the recruiter asked the decisive question,” Cahir wrote. “In the future, would I look back and regret my inaction if I didn’t enlist? I signed.”

He ultimately joined the Marine Corps Reserve and was assigned to the 4th Civil Affairs Group, Browne said. The unit kept a very high operations tempo. He deployed to Ramadi from 2004 to 2005, and then made a second deployment to Fallujah in 2006 and 2007.

Both cities are in Iraq’s Anbar province, which was the most dangerous part of Iraq for several years before the U.S. military successfully formed an alliance with Sunni tribes against al-Qaida, finally turning the tide of the Iraq war.

As a reporter, Cahir was able to talk to anyone about virtually any topic, and his experiences in journalism proved useful when he became a civil affairs Marine, Browne said.

“He was able to listen carefully, speak candidly, and deal fairly with the delegations that he was covering on both sides of the aisle,” Browne said, “Those skills served him really well in the Marine Corps also. The job of civil affairs Marines is to go into communities and make connections with the locals and attempt to improve relationships with the United States military and help them get what they need to rebuild and to forge better relationships and alliances.”

Joseph P. Owens was the top editor at the Express-Times when Cahir confided in him that he wanted to join the Marine Corps. Owens initially suggested that Cahir could find other ways to contribute to the country, such as working as a war correspondent, but Cahir “wanted to help preserve freedom.”

“I believe he is among the greatest Americans of our generation,” said Owens, whom I used to work for. “No one believed in freedom more. No one gave more, and I’ll take that to the bank. He’s a tremendous hero.”

Like all Americans, Cahir was outraged by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but he actually did something by enlisting in the Marines, said Owens, who is now editor of The Dialog, the news outlet for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware.

“For him, it was the best decision,” Owens said. “It cost him his life. He just knew he wouldn’t be satisfied if he hadn’t done anything to fix it. He was a man of his word and he backed it up.”

While he was a warrior, Cahir’s goal when deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan was to help make the world a better place, Owens said.

After an unsuccessful run for Congress, Cahir deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan in May 2009. On Aug. 9, Cahir’s unit was ambushed. He was shot in the neck and died. 

Owens said he was blindsided when he heard that Cahir had been killed.

“I got a phone call,” Owens recalled, “I was driving home from work and the message was Bill Cahir was killed. It really knocked me back because I had not been directly in touch with him at that point. He hadn’t worked for us for a couple of years, and I didn’t know he was in Afghanistan. I didn’t know he was there and here I was getting news that he was gone. It was really hard. It was hard for everybody, obviously — his family especially.”

Browne was five months pregnant when Cahir was killed. She gave birth to twins just one day after his unit returned from Afghanistan.

To give her children an understanding of who their father was, Browne makes sure that her twins are connected to Bill’s family, who can talk to them about chapters of his life before the two met, she said.

“As they’ve grown up, they’ve been able to hear those stories at increasing levels of sophistication and complexity,” Browne said. “What you talk to a 3-year-old about is different than what you talk to a 14-year-old about. And at this point, they’re in middle school, and you can talk to them about pretty much anything at this point, and they ask really good questions.”

Browne now shares with her children articles that Cahir wrote and materials from his career as a staffer on Capitol Hill when he worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy.   

It’s been nearly 15 years since Cahir’s death and yet Browne and her family think about him every day, she said.

“I just feel so lucky to have had him in my life,” Browne said. “He changed the trajectory of my life. He gave me these beautiful children. He gave me a beautiful extended family, and I am continually inspired by his example.”

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