* In early 2006, questions arose about the circumstances surrounding the issuance of Murtha’s two Purple Hearts. The following Cybercast News Service report of January 13, 2006 summarizes the matter very well:
Having ascended to the national stage as one of the most vocal critics of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John Murtha has long downplayed the controversy and the bitterness surrounding the two Purple Hearts he was awarded for military service in Vietnam.
Murtha is a retired marine and was the first Vietnam combat veteran elected to Congress. Since 1967, there have been at least three different accounts of the injuries that purportedly earned Murtha his Purple Hearts. Those accounts also appear to conflict with the limited military records that are available, and Murtha has thus far refused to release his own military records.
A Cybercast News Service investigation also reveals that one of Murtha’s former Democratic congressional colleagues and a fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, Don Bailey of Pennsylvania, alleges that Murtha admitted during an emotional conversation on the floor of the U.S. House in the early 1980s that he did not deserve his Purple Hearts.
“[Murtha] is putting himself forward as some combat veteran with serious wounds and he’s using that and it’s dishonest and it’s wrong,” Bailey told Cybercast News Service on Jan. 9. Murtha served in the Marines on active duty and in the reserves from 1952 until his retirement as a colonel in 1990. He volunteered for service in Vietnam and was a First Marine Regiment intelligence officer in 1966 and 1967.
Murtha and Bailey, once allies, were forced to run against each other in a Democratic congressional primary in 1982 following redistricting. Murtha won the election.
Murtha has, in the past, publicly dismissed any questions about whether he deserved his two Purple Hearts, noting during his 1994 congressional campaign that “I am proud of my service in Vietnam.”
In his Friday, Jan. 13, response to the Cybercast News Service investigation, Murtha again defended his military record.
“Questions about my record are clearly an attempt to distract attention from the real issue, which is that our brave men and women in uniform are dying and being injured every day in the middle of a civil war that can be resolved only by the Iraqis themselves,” Murtha wrote in an email response.
“I volunteered for a year’s duty in Vietnam. I was out in the field almost every single day. We took heavy casualties in my regiment the year that I was there. In my fitness reports, I was rated No. 1. My record is clear,” Murtha added.
However, another source, World War II Navy veteran Harry M. Fox, previously indicated that Murtha in 1968 personally asked Fox’s boss, then-U.S. Rep. John Saylor (R-Pa.), for assistance in obtaining the Purple Hearts, but was turned down because Saylor’s office determined that Murtha lacked sufficient evidence of wounds. Murtha later challenged Saylor for his House seat in 1968 and lost. Fox said he personally viewed Murtha’s military records in 1968 as Saylor’s aide.
When Saylor died in 1973, Fox attempted to succeed his boss in Congress, but was narrowly defeated by Murtha in a 1974 special election.
“Pretending to be a big war hero and boasting about having medals is a slap in the face to our veterans who were seriously wounded or killed in action,” Fox was quoted as telling the Uniontown Herald-Standard in the newspaper’s Nov. 1, 1996 edition. “He campaigned as a war hero and I’ve never seen any documentation that he earned any of these honors,” Fox reportedly stated.
On Friday, Jan. 13, Murtha’s congressional communications director provided Cybercast News Service with a copy of a letter from the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, citing Murtha’s request of Sept. 26, 1967, seeking Purple Hearts. Cybercast News Service did not authenticate the letter.
“The records of this Headquarters show that you are entitled to the Purple Heart and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Purple Heart for wounds received in action against insurgent Communist Guerrilla forces on 22 March and 7 May 1967 in the Republic of Vietnam,” according to the letter signed by an individual identified only as A. Gardoni. Gardoni’s title is not listed on the letter.
Cybercast News Service attempted to contact Fox for this article, but learned that the health of the 81-year-old was too poor to allow him to communicate. But in a 1996 newspaper article, Fox questioned whether Murtha deserved his Purple Hearts, alleging that there was insufficient evidence of injuries and that Murtha was never confined to a hospital.
“Of course Congressman Saylor wanted to help if he could, but there was nothing in the service record to indicate the wounds were of any severity and the documents specifically indicated that next of kin was not notified in either instance,” Fox told the Herald-Standard in 1996. “We were amazed that Mr. Murtha was asking for Purple Hearts for superficial lacerations,” he added.
Murtha’s accounts of his Vietnam War wounds may also conflict with the available U.S. Marine medical records obtained by the media.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 12, 2002, reported that “Marine Corps casualty records show that Murtha was injured in ‘hostile’ actions near Danang, Vietnam, on March 22, 1967, and May 7, 1967.
“In the first incident, his right cheek was lacerated, and in the second, he was lacerated above his left eye. Neither injury required evacuation,” the Post-Gazette reported.
But an Oct. 26, 1994, article in the Herald-Standard quoted Murtha as describing two different injuries.
“I was wounded in the arm with shrapnel from a bullet that hit the motor mount of a helicopter. In the other, my knee was banged up and my arm was banged up when a helicopter was shot down from a very few feet,” Murtha told the Herald-Standard.
A June 1, 1967 report in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat quoted a letter that the newspaper indicated was sent by Murtha to his wife that same year. The letter apparently detailed yet another version of how Murtha qualified for one of his Purple Hearts. According to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Murtha’s injuries involved his being “struck in the ankle” by a “shot that ricocheted off the helicopter.”
Murtha, a 16-term congressman from southwestern Pennsylvania and the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, drew national attention on Nov. 17, 2005, when he called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
The Vietnam veteran even took a swipe at President Bush and Vice President Cheney, neither of whom have actual combat experience.
“I like guys who’ve never been there, who criticize us who’ve been there,” Murtha said. “I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and sent people to war and then don’t like to hear suggestions that what may need to be done.”
Murtha discussed his own combat experience as a marine intelligence officer in his 2004 autobiography, From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security. [He wrote on page 14 of the 2004 paperback edition of his book:] “I had been awake more than twenty-four hours by the time we landed. A few hours into the battle, an on-again-off-again event, I could no longer keep my eyes open. I curled up next to a bunker and fell into a deep sleep for about an hour. Even the noise of frequent gunfire didn’t wake me up. (One of my fellow officers told me the next morning that when he hadn’t seen me for an hour or so, he assumed I was dead.)” …
In addition to his Purple Hearts, Murtha received the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry and the Bronze Star with combat “V” for service in the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. Murtha also served in the Marines during the Korean War but did not serve in Korea, according to his book.
Bailey said during the time Murtha was being investigated for his role in the Abscam FBI sting in 1980, Murtha made a confession on the House floor. “… you admitted, back in our corner, that you didn’t earn your purple hearts (sic) (you indicated you had small scratch on your cheek that wasn’t even directly related to an APC [Armored Personnel Carrier] that ran over a small antipersonnel mine that was behind you). The other purple heart [sic] you even declined to explain,” wrote Bailey in an open letter dated May 5, 2002.
Bailey is also a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and was awarded a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars.
“At the time [of Murtha’s alleged admission], you were feeling particularly vulnerable because it wasn’t too long after you had called me crying and sobbing, thanking me for ‘saving your life’ before the ethics committee [on Abscam-related charges]. There was no doubt in my mind that you were expressing to me that you did not believe you did anything sufficient to earn the purple heart [sic] and that you didn’t want to be active in my efforts to laud Vietnam veterans that served with us,” Bailey wrote in his May 2002 letter. “You may deny that all you wish — but you and I know that that conversation took place,” he added.
In the Jan. 9 interview with Cybercast News Service Bailey affirmed the contents of his 2002 letter.
“The issue here is this idea or pretense that [Murtha] knows combat and he’s got two Purple Hearts. He’s a phony and a liar,” Bailey said.
Bailey also questioned why Murtha has thus far declined to release his full military records in order to clear up the controversy.
“The Marine Corps ought to be able to produce all the orders, the medical stuff, the citations and the orders granting [the Purple Hearts] and everything else. Where is that stuff?” he asked.
According to a May 16, 2002, edition of the Washington, Pa., Observer-Reporter, Murtha “produced military paperwork indicating he was entitled to the awards,” and a Murtha spokesperson was quoted as saying that “the media for years has investigated ‘and found nothing.’”
But Murtha’s paperwork did nothing to sway Bailey’s opinion.
“You may fool a few reporters into believing that merely because you got some perfunctory paperwork made out by a friend, that that means you earned the purple hearts [sic]. But even if you were awarded the medals later, there should be affidavits from witnesses. These things should be easy to get,” Bailey wrote in his letter while demanding an apology from Murtha for questioning his credibility.
Murtha could end the controversy at any time, Bailey added, simply by calling a press conference and producing the evidence of his wounds.
“Explain where you were and what you were doing when you got the purple hearts.[sic] Explain who was with you and treated your wounds, but most important, Jack, describe your wounds or the lack thereof, as you did for me, years ago,” Bailey wrote.
“Unless the Marine Corps gives out medals for unsubstantiated noncombat-related telltale scratches, procured for use in political campaign — then show me the money, Jack,” Bailey added.
During the 1994 congressional campaign against GOP opponent Dr. William Choby, Murtha’s two Purple Hearts became a political issue.
“Explain your Purple Hearts. He (Murtha) used them to get elected,” Choby charged in 1994.
In responding to the charges, Murtha claimed that he “didn’t ask” for the Purple Hearts.
“I’m proud of my service in Vietnam. I don’t know if he [Choby] served in the service at all. I left my family and my business to serve in Vietnam. My family made great sacrifice for me to make that service in Vietnam, so I’m very proud of that,” he told the Uniontown Herald-Standard in the newspaper’s Oct. 26, 1994 edition.
“I am disappointed that a guy [Choby] would say something like that when I volunteered in the reserves and I felt it was important that I go. What’s the point in all this? It’s irritating,” Murtha added.
Choby also challenged the validity of Murtha’s Bronze Star with Combat ‘V’ during the 1996 congressional campaign.
“I find it very curious that Combat ‘V’ doesn’t even exist in any of the materials he had distributed,” Choby was quoted as saying in the Herald-Standard of Oct. 13, 1996. “His military record improves over the years,” he added.
The Murtha controversy is reminiscent of the flap surrounding the war record of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. But while critics like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Kerry in 2004 because of his anti-war activism of the 1970s, Murtha’s three chief accusers all made their allegations years and in some cases decades before Murtha emerged last November as a prominent anti-war activist.
Choby told Cybercast News Service on Jan. 5 that Murtha’s entire political career is based on his war record. “Without that credibility of those combat medals, he would have never been elected to office,” Choby said.