Danny Maher, or as his friends call him, Donny O’Malley, dreamed of being a Marine since he was a kid, growing up on Vietnam films and other war movies. As a self-described adrenaline junkie, Danny joined the Marine Infantry, ready to experience the terrifying moments when life and death would be quickly exchanged in hard-fought firefights, much like the horrific battle scenes in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. “I was waiting for the time that I would get really, really scared,” Danny confessed.
Written by David Pingree
“And it didn’t happen for a long time until bullets were snapping over my head and then I finally felt the fear and my whole body shook. But I had mentally prepared myself for it since I was a kid.” Moments such as these only occurred a few times during Danny’s deployment in Afghanistan, but he loved the rush and excitement that each firefight or engagement with the enemy brought. This isn’t to say that Danny doesn’t acknowledge or respect the seriousness of armed conflict.
“I was fortunate,” Danny admits, “What I experienced was nothing compared to what other guys were experiencing, absolutely nothing. So I want to make that clear: I did cool stuff as a grunt but it’s nothing compared to what many other grunts have done. I embraced my situation, where I was and I enjoyed it—it was literally the best time of my life.” Furthermore, Danny said that he was lucky to never have seen any of his fellow soldiers killed in action, though he did have to witness serious casualties on both sides.
“I did watch Marines get hurt, blow legs off, and I watched a lot of enemies die, but I didn’t watch any Marines die. Watching your bros die creates demons that a lot of guys have. I’m not going to touch that, I never saw it,” he said.
From Depression to Confession
Following his discharge from the infantry, Danny began to go through periods of sadness that bordered on depression. He had missed his fellow soldiers, the camaraderie or service, as well as their “sense of purpose” and the intense lifestyle. He began to find emotional relief through writing, transforming many of his war journals into short stories. Danny initially wrote thin vignettes, almost reports, on his wartime experiences, until he met Art. Art instantly gravitated toward Danny and his stories, encouraging him to continue to write and express himself while also bringing out his friends and fellow soldiers in print. To Art, Danny’s journal made their overseas deployment all the more authentic. Many of these journal entries would ultimately manifest in his first book Embarrassing Confessions of a Marine Lieutenant: Operation Branding Iron 2.1A, which he shared with his friends and other combat veterans. “As I started sharing my stories with people, I realized that guys I knew connected with them and guys I didn’t know connected with them,” Danny said. One of these veterans that Danny met during this time was Art, who Danny befriended at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.
“He was such an incredibly nice person,” Danny said. “He was my biggest support, and he would text me all the time about what I was doing meant to him. So when he killed himself, I was crushed.”
Art From Pain to Print
Within hours after learning of Art’s death, Danny was in shock. It wasn’t until he was at Art’s funeral, when he witnessed Art’s mother sobbing, “WHY?!” that something changed. It was then that he decided he had to do something. The best way to make an impact on other veterans’ lives was through his writing. Pulling from his journals and short stories, Danny published Embarrassing Confessions of a Marine Lieutenant: Operation Branding Iron 2.1A, a collection of war stories that are often full of dark humor and the lighter side of combat operations—the cover features a grunt confessing his sins in a combat porta-potty to a priest.
“The dark humor is a coping mechanism, as you know, it’s used in combat,” Danny said. “Very soon after somebody gets hurt, the jokes start flying. You can cry for a little bit, but you have to continue your job. The way that you run towards your death is with a smile on your face.”
Danny now explains how war isn’t as serious as the movies depict it to audiences, which is partly why he believes that he has received some criticism. “Within the book, there are so many messages that can help someone who is dealing with pain [and grief],” Danny said. “And as a result, I have not received that much criticism.” This book was not intended to be for civilian readers, according to Danny, but to those who had served in action. By honoring his friend’s passing, Danny’s first dedication is to Art. “I realized that he had been a very important part of my writing and that it almost be wrong to not do something for him,” Danny said. “I had never thanked him for his help because he was actually the greatest influence on my writing.”
From Solitude to Solidarity
Using the growing momentum of support from his friends and combat brothers, Danny has organized Irreverent Warrior groups where veterans can gather and support each other through love and comradery. So far, Irreverent Warrior groups have sprung up in more than 50 cities and communities across the country.
“To me, Irreverent Warriors represents a group of guys that you can count on to have a great time with, to be able to open up to about whatever is going on here and to be supported by,” Danny stated. “That’s what this Irreverent warrior means to me, and what I hope it means for everyone.” Ultimately, Danny envisions Irreverent Warriors groups, or similar organizations under different names, springing up all over the United States to give veterans a sense of community and belonging.
“It’s about some lonely dude out in some small town in Ohio who sees this, sees how much fun we’re having, looks at all of our comedy, and becomes motivated,” Danny said, “So he starts putting up posters, signs, starts texting all of his buddies and starts getting people together. And maybe it’s like ten dudes, but those ten dudes would be better for it.”
When asked about his definition of ‘love’, Danny confessed that although he was fortunate to have come from a loving family, no amount of romantic or paternal love could compare to the love that he shares with his brothers in arms. “It’s my love for the guys that I served with that motivated me to get them together,” Danny said. “Because when I’m surrounded by a group that I have served with: the energy that’s created amongst us, the laughter that we share, the gayness that we express with each other. It is so powerful and intense.”
Danny even extends his love and affection for the strangers that happen to stop by and participate in his Irreverent Warriors meetings. “When a bunch of people gets together, whether it’s laughter or love— love especially— can make them do extraordinary things,” Danny said. “It’s out of love for me and out of love for the cause. And I want other groups that want to experience that love to join up.”