Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this column, including in the print edition of Tuesday's Washington Post, gave an incorrect job description for Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He is the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan.

Washington Sketch: A Hero Named Bill Cahir Dies in Afghanistan

Bill Cahir joined the Marines after 9/11 to fight in Afghanistan, and he finally got there after two tours in Iraq. He was buried Monday at Arlington.
Bill Cahir joined the Marines after 9/11 to fight in Afghanistan, and he finally got there after two tours in Iraq. He was buried Monday at Arlington. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On Saturday, millions watched as Ted Kennedy made his final trip to Arlington National Cemetery. With rather less attention, Arlington's soil opened again Monday to accept the remains of one of Kennedy's former aides, 40-year-old Bill Cahir.

The deceased, an Alexandria resident, was unknown to most Americans, but he did no less for his country than his old boss -- and, gauged by the last full measure of devotion, he did even more. He went from his job working for Kennedy in the Senate to become, at various points, a Washington journalist and a failed congressional candidate. But it was the Sept. 11 attacks that inspired Cahir, at age 34, to get an age waiver from military recruiters in 2003 and enlist in the Marines.

That brave and fateful choice ultimately landed Sgt. Cahir on the horse-drawn caisson at Arlington on Monday, two weeks after he took a bullet to the neck while on patrol in Afghanistan. Cahir's widow, pregnant with his twin daughters, accepted the folded flag from his casket.

"There are occasions in our lives which make us cry out 'no,' and a tragic death such as Bill's is one such occasion," Catholic Chaplain Kieran Mandato told hundreds of mourners packed into a chapel at Fort Myer. "Over and above the grief which we feel with his death, there is that extra and that anguished question: Why? Why did it happen this way, in the bloom of his life?"

The questions could go on and on. Would Cahir (pronounced "care") have enlisted if he knew that his first two deployments would be not to Afghanistan, where the 2001 attacks were hatched, but to Iraq? Would he and so many others -- 47 in Afghanistan in August alone -- have been lost if the nation's leaders had not been distracted by Iraq, allowing the situation in Afghanistan fell apart? As Cahir was buried, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, called for a new strategy in Afghanistan to reverse the "serious" situation that has developed. He's expected soon to ask for more troops.

Four days after Cahir died, a Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans had decided that the war in Afghanistan wasn't worth fighting -- an astonishing change from the early days of the war, when only one in 20 called it a mistake.

Sgt. Cahir certainly didn't agree with this new majority. When he ran unsuccessfully last year for the Democratic nomination for a House seat in Pennsylvania, Cahir, calling for an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, earned the support of liberal groups such as Friends said that he believed in his mission in Iraq but, after two tours there, was disillusioned by the way the war was fought.

There was no such disillusionment expressed earlier this year when Cahir got the call for his third deployment, to Afghanistan, even though he told his friend Chris Murphy that it "was going to be a harder slog than Iraq." He told friends he had no doubt he was doing the right thing. "He believed he was making a positive contribution," recalled his former newspaper colleague Brett Lieberman, to "make the future safer for his unborn children."

A month before he was killed, Cahir told an Associated Press reporter in southern Helmand province about "encouraging" and "candid" talks with the local villagers. It was in Helmand, in the village of Dahaneh, that Cahir was shot while on patrol.

Cahir was no ordinary enlisted man -- he had a degree in English from Penn State and worked for several years for Newhouse News Service, writing a first-person story about his boot-camp training in 2004 -- and the mourners filling the octagonal Memorial Chapel at Fort Myer on Monday were an unusual mixture of uniformed Marines alongside journalists and political staffers, a few with government ID tags around their necks. After the service, the enormous procession to the neighboring cemetery created a Fort Myer traffic jam.

His widow, lawyer Rene Browne, spent most of the formal Roman Catholic service with her eyes fixed on her husband's gunmetal casket a few feet away. At one point in the Mass, she covered her eyes with her hands. When Mandato offered Communion, he placed his hand on Browne's forehead to deliver a blessing.

The chaplain spoke of Cahir's death as a test of faith. "We can even feel betrayed by the God we have learned since childhood to call our Father," he said, recalling part of the 22nd Psalm: "my God, my God, why have You abandoned me?"

Mandato offered his belief that Cahir "is now on his pilgrimage home to heaven," and he closed with the Marines' "semper fidelis."

The chapel doors soon opened, and the mourners departed into the bright afternoon sun. Under a new military policy, Cahir was awarded the full honors, including the caisson and military band, traditionally reserved for officers.

But perhaps the greatest honor was bestowed by a dozen men who stood in the back of the chapel and were the last to leave: New York firefighters in their FDNY dress uniforms. They had been the iconic figures of Sept. 11, which sent Cahir off to the Marines -- and they were there again at journey's end.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company