Michael Murphy, a name to remember

Before he was a Medal of Honor recipient, a Navy SEAL and a hero, Lt. Murphy was a Penn State student


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On those fall days when the afternoon sun wants to linger low in the sky, the shadows of Penn State's Old Main will extend almost close enough to reach his name.

In another month, a Navy destroyer will bear the name. In another year or two, the actor Taylor Kitsch will go by his name in a movie.

You also can find his name here, at Veterans Plaza, on a curved wall surrounding a sculpture of a warrior's shield in the middle of the campus he once called home: Lt. Michael P. Murphy. The plaza, a gift of the class of 2011, was dedicated in a ceremony Friday.

He is a Medal of Honor recipient, the first from the war in Afghanistan, a Navy SEAL who helped save one man's life on a day when he and two other SEAL team members died in a firefight. Another eight SEALs and eight Army personnel were killed in a rescue attempt when their helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

He was known as Michael, Mike, Mikey or Murph, the Long Island jock who graduated with honors from Penn State in 1998.

In college, he brought his pre-teen brother as an aid for meeting girls at keg parties. He read "Lincoln On Leadership" in his spare time, marveling at Abraham Lincoln's use of logic. Outside the campus health clinic, he once persuaded a hesitant stranger to enter. The man found out he was suffering from a heart attack.

"People say about Mikey, 'he was a really, really good person,'" said his father, Dan Murphy. "You would have met him, and you would have liked him right away."

June 28, 2005. A four-member SEAL team led by Lt. Murphy is attacked by a force up of as many as 50 enemy anti-coalition militia fighters in a remote area of Afghanistan while conducting a reconnaissance mission. The three other SEALS on the team are Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Matthew Axelson and Sonar Technician 2nd Class Danny Dietz.

In 1994, the Murphy family moved Michael into Penn State's Sproul Hall, part of the cluster of dorms on the east side of campus. He'd live on the second floor. His mother, Maureen Murphy, hasn't forgotten the atmosphere. The kids were all different, but each wore the same confident, mistaken expression: They were 18 and had it all figured out.

If anyone came close, it was her son. He was far from perfect, but his actions had always involved thinking of others. At age 3, his face was injured by his uncle in an accident. Through gushing blood, he gazed into his mother's eyes and told her to stop crying, that he was OK.

Growing up, Michael would finish his homework on the school bus so he had more time with friends. He ended fights rather than started them. Murph the Protector, they called him.

He became a lifeguard then manager at Lake Ronkonkoma as a teenager but never forgot the other employees, like Jessica Borneman. She wasn't the typical Long Island girl. She was a hippie, kind of quiet. In a few days, he had his friends completing beach chores for her.

Michael fit in with the academics as much as the athletes and then brought them all together for parties.

"To look at him, he's a blue-collar kid, a fun guy to hang out with," his friend Owen O'Callaghan said. "The more you talk to him, he knows a lot about everything."

The college freshmen of Sproul quickly learned this. Craig Palmer, Mariusz Kolakowski, Tom Lipke, Michael Mazzarese and Chad Zeilfelder felt like Michael had become their good friend in just a couple of weeks.

On weeknights, they'd stay up late playing Risk. Most Friday nights throughout college, the boys drank at the Ginger Man. As pranks, they'd lift street signs straight off the pole. One spring break, Michael's Plymouth Laser broke down on the way to Florida. He left the car at a mechanic and hopped on a bus, using his father's American Express card the entire way.

The nightlife stunted the grades of others but not Michael's. He thrived with a double-major in psychology and political science.

As an upperclassman, Michael lived next door to most of his friends at the University Commons on Vairo Boulevard. They left the door unlocked so he could come in anytime. In the mornings, they'd usually wake up and find Michael sprawled out on the couch, reading a book.

His favorite was "Gates of Fire," which tells the story of the Spartans and battling forces of the Persian Empire in the Battle of Thermopylae. The vastly outnumbered Spartans lose, but they stand their ground for an impossible amount of time. Only one survives.

All four members of the SEAL team have been wounded in the firefight. A risky action can save his men: calling headquarters. Lt. Murphy rushes out into the open, vulnerable to enemy fire, to call with his team's position.

One summer in Long Island, Michael met Heather Duggan. She was blonde, beautiful, a gymnast at Penn State. They started hanging out, becoming best friends. She'd complain about the guys she dated. He'd listen with a caring ear. Michael's friends knew exactly what was going on.

"He was always in love with Heather," said college buddy Craig Palmer. "From day one, he loved her."

Michael partied and studied. He tutored others back home in algebra and biology. He spent time with Heather. For years he'd talked about attending law school. Everything was set.

One year, Michael started working out more. When he returned to work at Lake Ronkonkoma for the summer, he could grasp the beach's flagpole with his hands and hang on horizontally.

His mother remembers conversations he had about the evil people in the world whose actions affected the good majority.

On a ride back to State College from Long Island, Michael told his father he wanted to enlist in the military after graduation. His father thought it was a phase. He'd volunteered in Vietnam and never spoke to Michael about it during his childhood, not wanting to glorify that life or plant any ideas.

Mr. Murphy later embraced the decision. Michael wanted to join the elite ranks that infiltrated the enemy camps and made the biggest differences. By his senior year, he sought out State College's only living SEAL, Ryan McCombie, who advised him to train under a retired Navy captain. Michael would spend the next years of his life dedicated to becoming a Navy SEAL before serving in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.

Lt. Murphy reaches headquarters, gives the SEALs' location, and reports that they are under heavy fire. While he is exposed to enemy fire, a bullet drills him in the back. He says one more thing to headquarters: "thank you," and then rejoins his team.

When the rescue mission fails, Lt. Murphy and his team are nearly out of ammunition and left to fight on their own. By the time it ends after about two hours, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz have been killed in action. An estimated 35 Taliban also are found dead.

The day Maureen Murphy found out, about a week after Michael's death, she could picture him saying, "Mommy don't cry. I'm OK."

Heather, who had moved to Hawaii to be with Michael for training, learned at the same time. They were to be married in November 2005.

Michael's parents attended Friday's Veterans Plaza dedication on campus. They've tried to attend every occasion that has memorialized their son, including when President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor in 2007.

Life has a way of shifting into high-gear after college, and the group of Penn State friends lost touch. Mr. Palmer didn't know Michael became a SEAL until his death. When he read the news accounts, he also learned that Michael and Heather had been engaged.

For the short time he had, "he was able to enjoy being with his true love, his soul mate," Mr. Palmer said.

Corpsman Luttrell, though badly wounded, manages to reach a village about seven miles away where friendly locals keep him hidden from the Taliban. U.S. forces eventually rescue him on July 2.

They buried Michael with his wedding band and a keychain from his mother saying, "St. Michael the Protector." He rests in Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island. On Sept. 11, his grave was adorned with flowers, medals, pennies from visiting Boy Scouts and a rock inscribed with the word "son."

You wouldn't know it by looking, but a couple of years after he died they had to build a bigger stone marker for his grave. The first one wasn't large enough to carry all the honors, all the meaning attached to his name.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter@mdent05.


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