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As Long as We Remember...

February 10, 2010

A Complex and Complicated Life

Kevin E. Dayhoff

John P. Murtha, the Democrat congressman from Pennsylvania, died at Virginia Hospital Center Monday at the age of 77 after complications from gall-bladder surgery.


For some, Congressman Murtha burst upon the scene to become a household name and patriot, who spoke ‘truth to power’ against the Iraq war during the administration of President George W. Bush.


For others, Congressman Murtha was a complicated and complex, hypocritical, knee-jerk opportunistic lefty whose ‘principled’ objections to the war on terrorism quickly became irresponsible in tenor and tone.


Exacerbating the criticisms of Congressman Murtha was the perception that he mysteriously lost his voice of opposition to the war efforts once President Barack Obama was sworn into office.


Funny how that happens.


Even The Washington Post, not overwhelmingly known for going out of its way to say anything particularly unkind about Democrats, identified him in its lede as the “master of pork-barrel politics … considered one of the most influential on Capitol Hill,” and “a Vietnam veteran who staunchly supported military spending…”


Mr. Murtha held the seat in Congress from the 12th Congressional District in southwestern Pennsylvania for 19 terms. He first won the seat in a special election in 1974 after Republican Congressman John P. Saylor died in office.


Even a cursory review of his life and accomplishments reveals that Mr. Murtha was a gentleman for whom there is much to be admired and respected.


Certainly not to be overlooked is the fact that Mr. Murtha continued his service to our country by being the first Vietnam veteran to take a seat in Congress.


The road to Vietnam and Congress actually began as far back as the early 1950s.


Mr. Murtha had “enrolled in Washington and Jefferson College after graduating from high school, but left to join the Marine Corps in 1952,” according to The Washington Post’s new website publication “” “He volunteered to fight in Korea, but the conflict ended before his assignment came,” and he left the Marine Corp in 1955.


Mr. Murtha, who was born June 17, 1932, in New Martinsville, WV, and grew up in Mount Pleasant, PA, “moved back to Pennsylvania to manage the family gas station,” according to The Washington Post.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounted in a June 24, 2007, article, “John Murtha: How a lifelong hawk became a dove, too,” that Mr. Murtha completed his undergraduate education, earning a degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966, and then joined the Marine Reserves in Johnstown, PA.


“After President [Lyndon B.] Johnson declined to call the reserves into active duty, Murtha volunteered to go to Vietnam and was sent into combat in 1966 with the 1st Marines Regiment near Da Nang.”


For those who have studied the Vietnam conflict, Mr. Murtha commands much respect for his service.


“Murtha was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry for his service in the war,” recalled The Washington Post. “He remained in the Marine Reserves, attaining the rank of colonel, and retired from the military in 1990 after 37 years of service....”


That same Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article noted: “During Maj. Murtha's first full month on the job, the regiment recorded 619 ‘incidents’ – ambushes, booby traps, firefights – in a belt of rice paddies, small villages and thick forests south of Da Nang… The regiment lost nearly 300 Marines during Maj. Murtha's tour…”


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also observed: “As President Lyndon B. Johnson continued a massive expansion of the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam, Maj. Murtha possessed few doubts about his country's course of action…


“Today, 40 years later, Mr. Murtha, the senior congressman from Pennsylvania, doesn't express similar confidence about President Bush's military decisions. He has become one of Congress' loudest and most prominent critics of the war in Iraq, calling for a rapid redeployment of more than 150,000 U.S. troops.


“His conversion on Iraq disgusts some former comrades.


“‘He's lost his nerve,’ said John Lockie, 73, who also served as a major with the 1st Marines in Vietnam and now lives near Fresno, CA. ‘He's nothing more than a con man with a congressman's suit on.’”


WhoRunsGov recalls, “After repeatedly criticizing the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, Murtha decided to go public with a demand for withdrawal of U.S. troops in November 2005, dropping a bombshell on Washington. ‘Our military’s done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It’s time to bring the troops home,’ he said.


“Murtha’s reputation as a hawkish Democrat made the announcement politically damaging for the Bush administration, and Republicans rallied to the president’s defense. A day after Murtha’s announcement, House Republicans forced a vote on a measure calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq...


“During the debate on the withdrawal resolution, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R., Ohio) stood up to relay a message she claimed to have received from a Marine. ‘He asked me to send Congress a message — stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message — that cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” she said. Schmidt withdrew her statement and later issued a public apology…”


Mr. Murtha further offended many in May 2006 when he announced a Pentagon investigation would show U.S. Marines “killed innocent civilians in cold blood” in Haditha, Iraq.


Two of the Marines involved in the Haditha incident sued Congressman Murtha, according to a 2006 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “and one of the lawsuits, for defamation, was still playing out in the courts.”


Meanwhile the court of public opinion will debate the complicated and complex legacy of Congressman Murtha for many years.


Thank you Colonel Murtha for your service to our country. Semper Fi.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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