SPC Bill Maher was a mortarman. When I took command of the mortars in my second stint as platoon leader, I knew immediately that he was going to be one of my favorite soldiers. 11 Chucks are weirdos by definition. They’re all a little “off” in a very charming way – I mean who wants to carry around huge mortar tubes or worry about calculating where rounds are gonna drop when you can jump out of planes and kick in doors like the rest of the infantry? What makes them even weirder is that they have their own language, and their own culture – even though they are part of the battalion and are infantryman, there is always a friendly rivalry with the other units. This makes them want to be weirder. (Case in point – my battalion commander was a bit of a hard ass and I mentioned once that it would be funny if our whole platoon performed the opening cheer with choreography to the movie Bring it On for him. Guess what was executed with flawless precision the next month? You betcha – I still know all the words…)
Anyway, so I arrive my first day as a twenty-nothing first lieutenant and there is this specialist that is running around and giving all the squad leaders all kinds of shit. He’s making fun of Marsh for being bald, Bruening for being a meathead; he’s calling Austin “Magnum PI” for having a phenomenal stache – but somehow he was not being smoked by anyone and no one was getting pissed off. Instead, they were reciprocating – Bill, who was just over thirty at the time, was very much the “old man” of platoon, with only one squad leader and the PSG being older than him. As such, it was not uncommon for him to be asked what it was like to “fight the men in the black pajamas” or asked about “the proper way to detrack a Panzer Tank”. He would answer with “very creative – ha, ha – Maher’s old – wow – never realized that before – it’s hard to hang with such quick-witted guys.” Invariably, he’d go a smidge to far and end up in the front-leaning rest, but even as he was knocking out 100 push-ups, he and everyone around him had a smile on their faces.
Unlike most soldiers, who are cautious but curious about meeting their new leader, Bill dove right in – within five minutes I knew everything about him and had been grilled on everything from my background to my current dating situation, and it somehow wasn’t weird that he had just given me an OGA interview. Bill was a truly unique and interesting guy – he had been a professional chef and hardcore snowboarder prior to suddenly joining the Army at age 30. He had a number of reasons for this that he often confided in me: he wanted to serve his country, he wanted to lose the weight he had gained from being a chef, he wanted to prove to himself that he could make it, and he wanted to make his father proud – most of all, he wanted to do something that mattered. He wanted to look back on his life when he was older and say that he had made a difference.
Bill was a great soldier, but like all of us, he wasn’t perfect. His attitude was generally overwhelmingly positive, but he had mild swings of bitchy sarcasm when he was really hurting physically. As a platoon leader, I was a bit of a hard ass when it came to PT, motivated by my commander at the time, who is my personal hero, and at that point was a two-time Ranger Regiment vet (enlisted and officer) with a Panama mustard stain. I had decided that everyone in my platoon was going to be able to do a half-marathon with a minimum standard of 8-minute miles. Early on in my tenure there, during a particularly grueling, but short run, Bill was falling back a little. I dropped back to encourage him to pick it up and sprint in, as we only had about half-a-mile to go. The terse response was something like “Sir, I’ve been sprinting for the last five miles.” My NCOs took over at that point, as good NCOs do in those situations, and I was wondering if this was going to be an issue.
At 9:00 formation, Bill was all smiles and grins again. “Sir, I’m gonna call my dad – I can’t believe I just did 6 miles at 7:45!!!” Bill had, with Bruening’s foot up his ass, managed to sprint in the last half mile with the rest of the platoon. Six months later, I walked into a room where Bill, Wilkerson, and Prince were talking to another Mortar Platoon. Apparently, their 11C compatriots had just completed a 5-miler at “Ranger Pace” and were very proud that their whole platoon had made it. All I heard was Bill saying, “Five fucking miles? That’s like a warm up for us – I’m still drinking my morning coffee at the five-mile mark. This is the Army man – not middle school cross country. You should call home – hey Mom! Guess what! Today I ran five miles! I also ate breakfast, took a dump, and breathed a couple of times!”
I mentioned before that Bill was a phenomenal chef. He didn’t give up that skill simply because he had traded the white hat for the fatigue one. Because we were overseas when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred, every infantry unit instantly became responsible for primary security. We no longer lived in our homes and barracks, but rather spent the time in various outposts throughout Europe, pulling security for different bases. As such, we’d send Bill out with some cash and he’d scurry about and make us meals fit for royalty, while the other units were eating MREs or rations (yes, we would share with them). Bill was engaged at the time and would often speak excitedly about how fired up he was about it while he was smashing garlic with a chef’s knife. The girl was in her early twenties, so the guys of course had to give him incessant shit about the likelihood of his inability to “perform” at his age.
Bill was a constant paradox – he went from being a serious and sensitive friend who was there for his buddies when they needed it, whether it was girl trouble, army trouble, money trouble, or family trouble – to being an absurd clown, who when he wasn’t heckling his buddies, might be dropping his pants at inopportune times and acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary (often to Bruening, who shared a big brother/little brother love/hate relationship with his apprentice). No matter what he did, kind and caring or absurd and sophomoric, he was our friend.
And we loved him. Every last one of us.
Two years after I left the mortars and the honor of being Bill’s platoon leader, he was killed by an IED in Iraq. His body took the brunt of an explosion which would have killed one of my best friends. I heard the news and I fell to the ground, sliding on my back down the wall, and started crying. I could not stop myself. I had lost other friends and peers in this war already, but he was my first soldier – and he was one of the best. This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. He was a better person than I was – than so many of us – why did it have to be him?
There’s no clear answer for me. Even though logically, I look at the situation and say that there is nothing I could have done, I still feel guilt. I wonder if I could have trained him more, if perhaps things could have been different had I been there with him. Wilkerson, Jared’s normal driver, and a phenomenal human being and soldier, felt like it should have been him, even though he had no control over the events and we would have felt his loss as strongly. Jared feels the guilt that only a leader who has lost a soldier can know. But fair or not, Bill was there. He was serving his country. He was there so that we can sleep peacefully in our beds at night. He was there, ensuring that for at least one more day, freedom will triumph over tyranny.
On this Memorial Day, I wanted to tell you just a little bit about Bill. I cherish his memory. He made a difference in my life and in the lives of those around him and we’re better people for having known him. He was never perfect, but by God he was the best of men.
As of this writing there are 3439 coalition deaths from the Iraq War.
Almost 2 million men and women have died in our nation’s defense since 1775.
Each one of them has a story. Each one of them was loved by many.
On this Memorial Day, please spend time with family, barbecue, and enjoy yourself – but, if you could, spend a few moments treasuring these people that have allowed us to be who we are – that have allowed us this amazing opportunity to be free. They weren’t perfect, but they are heroes, and they are the best our nation has to offer.
Thank you, Bill.
God Bless America.
Copyright of Nick