August 14, 2009

Passion drove former Newhouse reporter killed in Afghanistan

Bill Cahir did not slide through life. The Marine sergeant who worked for the Newhouse Washington D.C. bureau, let passion drive him into politics, into journalism, into the military, into politics and to a company whre he hoped to make change happen. He didn't always win, but he kept doing what he thought was right.

Cahir of the 4th Civil Affairs Group, Marine Forces Reserve, based out of Washington D.C. "was killed in Afghanistan's Helmand Province Thursday by a single gunshot while conducting combat operations on a dismounted patrol. "

Co-workers shared memories online in news stories, blog posts and on Facebook, recalling the 40-year-old's high journalism standards, his passion for politics and his personal mission to do what is right. It was hard to stop following the links, to stop reading, to stop smiling even while knowing his family and friends are grieving.

Bill almost enlisted three times before finally joining the Marine Reserves at age 34 in Oct. 2003 He served two tours in Iraq. He didn't have to be in Afghanistan. But he was.

No decision made easily

The Pennsylvania native talked to a lot people before he left politics in 1995 for journalism, before he joined the Marines in October 2003, before he left journalism in January 2008 for an unsuccessful run for Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District.

I suspect there was a lot talking before he and Rene E. Browne, a business litigation lawyer in Washington D.C., married three years ago, and again when they learned they were expecting twin girls.

He talked, he listened and then he made up his own mind.

David Wood, who started working with Bill in 1999 in Washington D.C., posted this:
"Bill Cahir struggled so openly with the conflicting responsibilities of home and family, and service to his country. With painful honesty, he went hard at the difficult issues that many of us choose to ignore."

Jim Barnett, who started working with him in 2000, wrote this in a post that talked mostly about the goodness of a traditional journalist who worked for many bosses and asked the right questions:
"When we last talked at length, shortly before his announcement to run for Congress, I was surprised, but also not. He was unhappy with the conduct of the war, and he wanted to do something about it. This was Bill's new mission, and he was doing it his way - at the front line, working passionately and methodically."

Back to politics

The Harrisburg Patriot-News profiled Cahir when he resigned to run for the Congressional seat in 2008. Brett Lieberman, who had worked in the same office with Bill for eight years, explained that running meant a move from northern Virginia back to his birthplace Bellefonte.
"I think as an Iraq veteran, I offer a unique perspective. As a journalist, I've covered federal education, transportation and health care issues in detail, and I'm opposed to the tolling of I-80. I want to stop the tolling of interstates in Pennsylvania and across the country.... I am personally energized."

Loss leads to consulting

LeHigh Valley Live caught up with him after he lost in the three-way primary race to find out what was next. His answer:
"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."
David Woods wrote:
"He didn't win, but he didn't sulk, and after it was over he landed a job as a consultant in the private sector (Booz Allen Hamilton) while remaining in the Marine Corps reserves. Bill Cahir found nobility in military service and exulted in it."

Fought to be a Marine

Getting into the military, when you are old, overweight and facing other obstacles isn't easy.

"...other recruits would taunt him at boot camp for being a decade older than them. ... drill instructors would give him a hard time for being a college graduate and ... newspaper reporter... "
Politico and the Washington Post interviewed Deborah Howell, Cahir’s bureau chief at Newhouse before she left for the Post. She recalled how the Sept. 11 attacks inspired Cahir to enlist in the Marine Reserves at age 34.

Politico wrote it this way:
"Howell called Cahir's determination to enter the Marine Corps a late calling in his life. Despite her attempts to talk him out of it, she said Cahir was steadfast in his decision to enlist.

"He just had to do it. And finally, you know, you just have to say I understand you have to do this," Howell said. "He regretted nothing."
Howell told the Post about attending Bill's wedding several years ago, remembering how touched he was by the gift his fellow soldiers gave him, a sword to wear with his dress uniform.

Running for answers

David Wood recalled Bill's dilemma, discussed during lunchtime runs:
"Clearly, the excitement, adventure and camaraderie he imagined of military service attracted him. He felt deeply that he owed something to his country. He wanted to be part of a measured American response to Islamist extremism, and he could think of no way he could better contribute than joining the military."
Yet Bill knew, as he shared in a first person account of boot camp published in his former newspaper on July 4, 2004, that he'd be a private first class facing a pay cut, taking orders from younger men and almost certainly heading to the Middle East.
Cahir almost joined the military after college, after working a few years and after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
"In October 2003, the recruiter asked the decisive question: In the future, would I look back and regret my inaction if I didn't enlist?"

Former Marine knew Bill's challenges

Paul McHale, who Bill had covered when he was a congressman and then former assistant secretary of defense, recalled Cahir discussing the idea with him and how they grew to become friends. McHale, clearly shook by the news, knew that Bill "was in a particularly tough area in a particularly tough region." Bill's job as a civil affairs officer also was challenging. McHale told the Express Times:
"He was a community organizer while carrying a pack and a rifle.
The Express Times's interview with McHale helps me understand more what Bill faced on his latest tour. It's also an illustration of the rich relationships that can develop as a result of a reporting relationship.

When you read all the comments left on blog postings and articles, you learn that Bill did what had to be done, changing direction when necessary.

The Pennsylvania native, who once was a newspaper carrier, left the Capitol to start his journalism career. After graduating from Penn State in 1990, Cahir worked for Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, helping on the Family and Medical Leave Act. In 1993, Cahir joined Senator Harris Wofford's staff, where he worked on health care reform legislation until the Wofford's retirement in 1995.

Moving into journalism

He worked for the The Southampton Press for a year before moving to the Education Daily before moving to the Newhouses' Advance Publications newspapers and news services in 1999.

The Washington Bureau once had 24 employees, including 11 reporters like Bill who wrote for specific newspapers. Bill wrote the Capital Cahir blog and worked for these Advance Publications: The Express-Times, Gloucester County Times, The News of Cumberland County and Today's Sunbeam, all New Jersey-based newspapers owned by Advance Publications, according to a post on

Bill left the Newhouse Washington D.C. Bureau in January 2008 to run for Congress; long before the bureau's closing was announced in July, before the actual closing on Nov. 7, 2008.
His current civilian job was senior consultant for organization and strategy at Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm based in McLean,

The Washington Post also wrote about Andy Rosenberg, who met Bill working on Kennedy’s Senate labor committee (Bill was one of Andy's groomsman) now the spokesman for Bill's wife, his parents Mary Anne and John Cahir, two sisters and a brother.

"Bill was an extraordinary person in every respect and truly exemplified the very best of our country. Every part of his life was devoted to helping others, and he ultimately gave his life in this pursuit. Bill will be missed terribly by his loving wife, his wonderful family and his many, many friends."

He'll be missed by many. Reading about Bill and his decision making helped me understand a bit more about my brother who is a Marine and a nephew now in the Air Force. The beauty of the Internet.


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