Dead soldier's family wants to keep in touch with his comrades
August 1, 2003
Spc. William J. Maher III’s family members in Lower Makefield Township, Pa., have already gotten the worst news they’ll ever get.
Now they’re hoping for something better — letters from Maher’s 1st Armored Division comrades-in-arms in Iraq.
Maher, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment based at Ray Barracks in Friedberg, Germany, died Monday in Baghdad when guerrillas on an overpass attacked his convoy, dropping an explosive device into the soldier’s Humvee. Three other soldiers were injured.
“We would like to hear from people who were with him that day,” said Dan Massimini, Maher’s brother-in-law, in a phone interview. “Just a letter. We don’t want to intrude. We’d just like to write them. We’d love to do that. To know more about what happened ... and to just let them know we support them.”
Maher came from a long tradition of military service. His father, William J. Maher, 61, was a Marine; his father’s father was a master sergeant who fought in World War II against Hitler, said Massimini, a Gulf War Army veteran. Maher’s brother, Brian, served in the Navy on an attack submarine.
But the man his family calls Billy was different. For one, Billy Maher didn’t join up till he was 30. “He went in the Army to find himself, and he did,” William J. Maher Jr. was quoted as saying during a Wednesday press conference. “He thanked the Army for that.”
“They called him ‘the Old Man,’” Massimini said. “He was 35 years old. But he was young at heart. And he could give the younger guys a run for their money.”
Billy Maher was “fun-loving. Full of energy. He could light up a room,” said Wendy Massimini, his sister. Her brother — an expert fly fisherman — loved the outdoors and made the most of his time in Germany with snowboarding trips to neighboring Austria, she said.
Maher had been an 11 Charlie, a mortarman. But in Iraq, his new job was training a post-Saddam army, according to Dan Massimini. “He said, ‘I know it sounds a little crazy, but we’re training them and rearming them. And that’s the way it has to be.’”
“He didn’t regret the Army at all,” Kelly Massimini, 30, said, adding that Billy Maher planned to be a career soldier “till 9/11. Then he wanted to be home.”
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Virginia claimed members from nine families in Lower Makefield and Yardley Borough, bedroom communities for New York City to the north, said Jeff Werner, editor of the Yardley News.
“We’ve been through this before,” Warner said.
Maher’s plan was to be out of Iraq by November, and out of the Army by January, Kelly Massimini said.
But it was not to be.
His parents last talked with him Saturday at about 4 a.m. EDT, noon in Iraq, Kelly Massimini remembered. “His friend had been killed in an accident and he wanted my parents [to arrange] a Mass for him,” she said.
Sgt. Juan Serrano, 31, died July 24 when a vehicle fell on his head while he was changing a tire.
“He was so upset. He told them, ‘I’m not trying to be a hero. I just want to come home,’” Kelly Massimini said.
Then, their mother, Adeline Maher, answered the door to two soldiers Monday.
Billy Maher had died after being hit in right arm and right shoulder, Dan Massimini said. Evacuated by helicopter to a hospital, his brother-in-law bled to death, he said.
The outpouring of compassion has been “amazing,” Wendy Massimini said. Recognizing her face from the TV news, strangers in groceries express their condolences, she said. People, including her and her brother’s friends from high school, are stopping by to console the family. Others leave food on their doorstep.
The media has also come, and the family read excerpts from Billy Maher’s last seven-page letter to his family during a press conference.
In his letters, Maher was careful not to trouble his parents with the hard realities of Iraq, Dan Massimini said.
“A true soldier doesn’t get his parents upset,” he said. “[Maher] was always a man. He talked to me and to his brother ... but he never wanted his parents to worry. He never complained one time.”
Now, Massimini said, the family hopes letters will preserve their connection to the world in which Billy Maher lived and died.