John Murtha: How a lifelong hawk became a dove, too

Veteran Congressman still champions military even though he opposes Iraq war

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Maj. John P. Murtha arrives in Da Nang, Vietnam, in August 1966 to serve as the intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Regiment.
Click photo for larger image.


Maj. Murtha receives a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam.
Click photo for larger image.

WASHINGTON -- In July 1967, Maj. John P. Murtha, a 35-year-old reservist with the U.S. Marine Corps, ended his year-long tour of duty in Vietnam and headed home to his wife and three children in Johnstown.

He could point to success as the top-ranking intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Regiment. He had completed an overhaul of the unit's intelligence operation, recruiting talented, younger staffers and setting up a simple system for tracking enemy attacks.

Those changes appeared to be showing results. 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. By his final month, that number had fallen to 320.

The regiment lost nearly 300 Marines during Maj. Murtha's tour. But morale was still high, he said, and commanders estimated that the unit had killed thousands of Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese regulars.

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.

"I thought it was important that we stood up to communism," he said recently. "And if the Congress and the president said it was the right war, I thought it was the right war."

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, Calif. "He's nothing more than a con man with a congressman's suit on."

The Cybercast News Service, an online news organization, last year ran a report questioning whether Mr. Murtha deserved two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, even though Marine records confirm that he was wounded.

But all this obscures a critical point: Mr. Murtha, at his core, still sees himself as a part of the military, someone who uses his vast congressional budgetary powers to shower billions of dollars on defense projects and to protect America's national interests. A plaque given to him by a Marine sergeant in Vietnam sits in his Washington office as a reminder of his duty. It reads: "Victory is knowing your enemy."

Mr. Murtha's stance on the Iraq war may be different. His outlook on the world is the same.

He says the Iraq war, now in its fifth year, is badly damaging the military he has loved for decades. And he thinks an American withdrawal would force Iraq's major ethnic groups to settle their differences.

He still supports a draft, believing service is a national duty. That, he says, is why he volunteered to go to Vietnam.

"I think everybody ought to have a chance to serve," he said. "I believe that very strongly."

Heading to war
As a child growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Jack Murtha always wanted to be a Marine.

He had a long line of role models to follow. Robert Bell, an ancestor on his mother's side, fought in the Revolutionary War, he writes in his 2003 book, "From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security." Mr. Bell's great-grandson, Abraham Tidball Bell, was a soldier with the Union Army during the Civil War. Mr. Murtha's father and three uncles served in World War II.

The Korean War broke out in 1950, the year Mr. Murtha graduated from high school. Despite his mother's protests, he dropped out of Washington and Jefferson College and enlisted. (He later finished his undergraduate education at the University of Pittsburgh.)

He excelled at boot camp, going on to become a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., and completing an officer candidate course in Quantico, Va.

He volunteered for duty in Korea, but, by the time he received his orders, the war was over. He finished his service at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he met his future wife, Joyce Bell.

They moved back to Pennsylvania, and Mr. Murtha took over the family business, a car wash and gas station.

His interest in military service remained strong. He joined a Marine reserve unit, Johnstown's 34th Rifle Company, and took on correspondence courses about map reading, battlefield tactics and intelligence. He went to a training program in Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a jungle warfare school near the Panama Canal.

"I had a lot of respect for Murtha," said Ron Peduzzi, 73, who attended the Panama school with Mr. Murtha and now lives near Camp Lejeune. "Jack was always out front, leading."

Mr. Murtha almost had to beg the Marines to send him to Vietnam.

Despite a massive troop buildup, President Johnson declined to call up the reserves.

Because of that, Mr. Murtha volunteered to return to active duty. The Marines asked him to go back to Camp Lejeune, but he turned them down. It was Vietnam or nowhere. Eventually, he received his orders.

In mid-1966, Mr. Murtha bid goodbye to his wife and three children, Donna Sue, 9, and twins John and Patrick, 8. His brother would run the car wash business during his absence.

"He's very patriotic and it's what he wants to do. I'm proud of him for doing it," Joyce Murtha told the Pittsburgh Press at the time.

On the ground
On Aug. 20, 1966, Maj. John Murtha took his position at the 1st Marines regimental headquarters, a few miles south of Da Nang. At the time, it was made up of three battalions and 3,158 men, according to Marine Corps records. Twenty-four were killed in enemy attacks that month, and 160 were wounded.

The regiment's mission was to destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers near the Da Nang air base and forge closer relations with Vietnamese civilians.

Maj. Murtha quickly immersed himself in the job.

He convinced the regimental commander, Col. Donald L. Mallory, to commit several capable Marines from each battalion to his intelligence operation. He and his officers devised a data processing system that plotted key statistics about each attack on a grid, helping them find patterns.

On most days, Maj. Murtha visited field units. He rode in jeeps along dangerous roads, carrying a .45-caliber pistol. Because of the sweltering heat, he seldom wore a flak jacket.

"They'd fire at you as you were driving by," Maj. Murtha said. "It just happened so often that you didn't think about it."

"This man is a real charger," Col. Mallory told a Scripps-Howard reporter in Vietnam in November 1966. "He spends most of his time in the field. Every night, we sit down and try to assess all the reports we've received during the day. It's his job to winnow the wheat from the chaff."

There were many, many dead ends, and a few significant successes.

When Maj. Murtha's calculations located a suspected Viet Cong base, Col. Mallory sent several companies there. They found a cemetery and empty fields.

After several days of searching, the Marines feigned a withdrawal to lure the Viet Cong out of their hiding spot.

The ruse worked. A heavy battle lasted several hours. The next day, the Marines unearthed a complex of tunnels that ran 25 to 30 feet below ground.

Today, Mr. Murtha doesn't remember the exact timing of the battle, but the 1st Marine Regiment's command chronology describes a very similar incident in October 1966 called Operation Teton. As Viet Cong fighters tried to escape, the Marines cut them down, killing at least 37. Two Marines were killed.

The regiment's intelligence operation faced serious limitations. Often information gathered on the field was useless, or, even worse, blatantly false. Of approximately 100 reports that came in every day, about one or two would be accurate.

Maj. Murtha didn't speak any Vietnamese, and he never dealt directly with local informants, known as "Kit Carsons."

"I didn't trust the fact that we had interpreters," he said. "Is that guy telling you the truth when you ask him a question? You don't know."

In November 1966, a platoon temporarily stationed itself in a small village near the regimental headquarters. Someone tipped off the Viet Cong, who ambushed the Marines, killing more than two dozen.

"The VC had stripped the Marines of their clothing," said Mr. Lockie, the former major from California. "Twenty-eight naked Marines lay dead."

The regimental headquarters, where both officers lived, was protected by barbed wire, watch towers, and machine gun posts. They slept in tents and ate in a mess hall. The food was acceptable. Powdered eggs were the norm for breakfast, and there were occasional meals of pork chops, steak, and, about every two weeks, ice cream.

Mr. Lockie, who oversaw the day-to-day operation of the base facilities, described Mr. Murtha as a loner.

"I could never recall an evening when I saw him sitting in the officers' club, drinking a beer and shooting the breeze," he said. "He was never that kind of guy."

Jerome Trehy, a captain who shared frequent overnight watches with Mr. Murtha in the headquarters, called him a "friendly guy" who often talked about political developments in the U.S.

"I told him, 'You know what. You're going to go back and run for Congress,' " said Mr. Trehy, 75, of Williamsburg, Va.

Mr. Murtha denied harboring such a dream, he said.

The Johnstown Marine was wounded twice during his tour of duty, both times in helicopters. On one occasion, he was in an H-34 "Seahorse" that made a hard landing to avoid enemy fire, throwing passengers from their seats. Another attack came in mid-air. A bullet pierced the helicopter and sprayed him with shrapnel.

He was eventually awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with Combat "V," and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

Even before he came out against the Iraq war, Mr. Murtha faced questions about his medals from political opponents. The 2006 Cybercast News Service report interviewed some of those old rivals, citing discrepancies in how Mr. Murtha has described his wounds.

According to documents in the Marine Corps' public archives in Quantico, Va., Mr. Murtha received "lacerations" on his cheek and near his eye. He says he also hurt his knee and scratched his arm.

Going to Washington
Mr. Murtha quickly entered politics when he returned to Pennsylvania. In 1968, the Cambria County Democratic Party recruited him to challenge Rep. John P. Saylor, a Republican. On the campaign trail, he blasted Johnstown locals who were wavering on the war.

"To me, it is academic whether we should be in Vietnam," he said at the time. "Our men are fighting their hearts out so we can sit at home and enjoy the luxuries of this great nation. We have to unite."

He lost that year, but he soon won a seat in the state House. Mr. Saylor later died in office, and Mr. Murtha ran for Congress again in a 1974 special election. He won by 230 votes, becoming the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress.

As the U.S. pulled back from the war, Mr. Murtha bucked many in his party and voted for continued military and financial aid for South Vietnam. Even as the American public became wary of foreign entanglements, Mr. Murtha remained pro-military.

In 1982, he traveled to Lebanon to talk with American commanders who were overseeing a Marine expeditionary force. There he saw Col. Tom Stokes, who had served with the 1st Marine Regiment in Vietnam. Mr. Stokes, who now lives in Charles Town, W.Va., was impressed that Mr. Murtha came to visit the Marines at their airport base, while other "VIPs" stayed in their hotels.

Almost a decade later, Mr. Murtha was a strong backer of the U.S.-led fight against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. In 2002, he voted to give President George W. Bush the power to attack Iraq once again.

Soon after the March 2003 invasion, however, he decided he had made a mistake. He noticed many of the problems that had plagued the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, including a grave shortage of usable intelligence in a region where Americans didn't understand the culture and the language.

Also, his contacts in the military warned him about worrisome shortages of body armor and vehicles that could withstand blasts from roadside bombs. The number of troops didn't seem to be large enough to pacify the country.

Mr. Murtha tried to convey his concerns to the White House privately, he said. Publicly, he kept a brave face.

"A war initiated on faulty intelligence must not be followed by a premature withdrawal of our troops based on a political timetable," he wrote in an epilogue to his book.

Now, Mr. Murtha rejects that idea, and he hopes to use his power of the purse as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to force the Bush administration to change course.

"I made a mistake. I admitted I made a mistake," he said. "I couldn't get anywhere just by talking to [the Bush administration.] I had to say something publicly, and I think it's made the difference."

Many anti-war advocates credit Mr. Murtha's switch as a turning point in the debate about the war, citing his credibility as a conservative lawmaker with a good track record on defense issues.

Mr. Stokes, 75, doesn't see it that way: "If I saw Jack, I'd tell him what I really thought about him. But I don't need to see it in the newspaper."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479.


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