Between Iraq and a Hard Race

Patrick Murphy is back from Iraq and focused on a new mission — this one for a seat in Congress

Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Rising Stars Magazine — December 2005

There are 119 veterans of military service in the U.S. House of Representatives. Patrick Murphy wants to be the 120th.

Murphy is an earnest 32 year old, clean-cut, focused, and insightful. He has to be. Since April, he has been an associate at Cozen O’Connor, practicing commercial litigation. More important, he’s running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Eighth Congressional District. If he wins the primary next May, he will face incumbent Michael Fitzpatrick in the fall. What he hopes will give him a leg up on his rivals is one item on his résumé: He spent five years on active duty in the United States Army. He was a captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps and served a tour in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, earning a Bronze Star in the process.

“The greatest thing I’ll ever do is serve my country in time of war,” he says.

This is his mantra. He has repeated it to reporters, to audiences of potential constituents and on his Web site, www.murphy06.com. There was a quote posted there that reveals something of Murphy’s mindset. It’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Murphy’s pedigree is strictly blue-collar. A son of a police officer and a legal secretary, he was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia. He is named after Patrick Ward, an Army specialist from his neighborhood who was killed in Vietnam. His dad served in the Navy during the war and two of his uncles were veterans. One was in the 82nd Airborne. It was the tales about the storied 82nd that inspired Murphy’s career goal: to serve in his uncle’s division as a paratrooper.

Not that he intended to make the military his life. He had grown up thinking that he would enter law enforcement, like his father. He spoke with Mike Dunn, a lawyer at Murphy (no relation) and O’Connor, for whom he had worked as a messenger while in high school, who suggested he pursue a legal career.

“I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a lawyer,” he told Dunn.

“Do you think I was smart when I was your age?” Dunn replied.

Murphy was motivated. He attended Bucks County Community College, then King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. There he was an all-star hockey player and student-body president. It was while at King’s College that he chose to join the Army ROTC, which involved making a four-year commitment to active duty. When he graduated in 1996, he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

After three years at the School of Law at Widener University, he began his military service. Three weeks before he was to leave for South Korea to serve with the 2nd Infantry, he was offered a position at the United States Military Academy at West Point. For the next year and a half he handled civil litigation and prosecuted court-martial cases. Then he was offered a position on the faculty.

“Join us for two years and I’ll do my best to get you a posting with the 82nd,” the head of the JAG bureau, Col. Patrick Finnegan, told him. He asked for the weekend to think it over. He called his mentor, Dunn, who told him, “Teaching at West Point is like teaching at Harvard.”

He took the position.

Two years later, Murphy completed his commitment at West Point and finally got to serve with the 82nd. He was flown to Baghdad to serve as a regimental judge advocate. It was June 2003.

“I did absolutely everything,” he said in a conversation from his office on Market Street in Philadelphia. “I handled the courts-martial of 18 American soldiers — for drug use, for theft, one for the maltreatment of an Iraqi citizen.”

For the most part, though, he initiated reconstruction efforts in the Iraqi justice system. He hired 10 Iraqi attorneys and supported their work with eight paratrooper paralegals. Under the Foreign Claims Act, a law dating from World War II that allows the United States to pay in cases in which American troops are negligent, he adjudicated more than 1,600 claims by Iraqis that they had been harmed by Americans.

“In 18 percent of the cases, I found for the Iraqi complainants. I awarded them over $200,000,” he says, explaining that that figure, at the time, was equivalent to almost $100 million in the Iraqi economy. “Even if I denied a claim, they would say to me, ‘Thank you for taking the time to listen.’”

He also prosecuted three Iraqis in the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad. “One of these was a sheik, a lieutenant of the radical Sheik Moktada al-Sadr. He had been hoarding arms and ordnance in a mosque, in violation of the Geneva Convention.”

Yet for every victory there were the inevitable snafus inherent in military bureaucracy. One Friday, needing to get copies of Coalition Provisional Authority orders to Iraqi judges, Murphy convoyed to an early-morning meeting in the protected Green Zone.

He was the only captain in a room filled with colonels and generals. Murphy told them: “Look, we’ve been told we’ll be getting copies of these orders since we’ve been here. Obviously, someone here does not have a sense of urgency. Someone needs to get his head out of his ass.” The brass may not have liked what the upstart captain said, but, Murphy smiles, “soon after, they found a way to get the copies made.”

His unit did not live in the relatively safe Green Zone, but in the middle of that teeming city, in the largest and poorest district, Al Rashid. “There were about one and a half million people in my sector,” Murphy says. “This is about the population of Philadelphia. There are about 7,000 police officers to keep the peace in Philadelphia; there were only 3,500 of us. We got mortared most every night. And we always wondered if the Iraqis we were helping during the day were the ones lobbing mortars at us.”

Life in Baghdad was primitive. Showers were rare events. Dinner was not home-cooked but MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As an officer, Murphy could have sat at a desk all day, but he says, “That’s not what you do in the 82nd. You do what your soldiers do.” He worked on planning night combat operations. He ran convoys that were, he said, akin to playing Russian roulette.

During seven months in Iraq, “We lost 19 guys there, mostly to IEDs — improvised explosive devices.” Others were killed in less predictable ways. “Some Iraqis were celebrating a wedding and firing weapons into the air,” Murphy says. “One of our guys was smoking a cigarette. He was hit by a stray round through the top of his head.”

He had close calls. Running a convoy two days before he was due to leave, one of his men, Pvt. Juan Arevalo, thought he saw an IED in the road. Murphy halted the convoy and called for an EOD (explosive ordnance device) team. They found two artillery shells primed to explode. “Could have blown our Humvees to kingdom come,” Murphy says.

Murphy is ambivalent about his service in Iraq. “We were there to establish law and order, abiding by the fundamental rule that no one is above the law,” he says. “I’m proud of what we accomplished, but we could have done so much more. … We didn’t do all that we could to win the peace.”

When he was released from active duty that September, the race for the presidency was in its final throes. Murphy went to work for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, heading Veterans for Kerry in Philadelphia because he didn’t like where the country was going. His stand subjected him to personal attacks.

“I was called a Communist,” he says. “I was told that there are paratroopers rolling around in their graves knowing that one of their own was supporting John Kerry.”

On October 18, three weeks before the election, he recalls, “Some of the ‘Swift Boat veterans’ who had spent the summer flinging mud at Kerry were kicking off a national radio tour at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Philadelphia. I was asked to go over to respond to their charges.

“One of the reporters asked me, ‘How do [their charges] make you feel?’

“I said that Kerry had served our country with honor, and if they disagreed with his positions on the issues, fine, but it’s a disgrace to trash a Vietnam veteran at this memorial.

“I guess I stole some of their fire. Some of them charged over to me. ‘What do you know about combat?’ one said. ‘I was a captain in the 82nd Airborne. I served in Iraq. We lost 19 guys over there.’ That ended that conversation.

“Listen, all Americans want our troops in Iraq to successfully complete the mission,” he says. “However, our sons and daughters in Iraq need leaders who are willing to honestly discuss our future course.” He makes it clear he is not opposed to the war — anti-war groups have asked him to speak and he declines — but wishes the administration would do a smarter job of conducting it, such as providing better equipment for the troops and developing an exit strategy.

Murphy keeps a schedule that would seem hectic to anyone who hasn’t served in active duty. He keeps regular hours at Cozen O’Connor, where he’s regarded as a top young litigator, and spends nearly every moment of his free time on his campaign.

Can he win? He thinks so, and he’s not the only one. Pundits in the area point out that the Eighth District is moderate in its politics and could very well go to a Democrat. Plus Murphy may be jumping in as the right candidate at the right time. As Paul Hackett showed when he nearly won a seat in a highly conservative district in Ohio last summer, voters seem to be responding to Democratic candidates who are back from Iraq and can give them straight talk on what they’ve seen. Political analyst Larry Ceisler refers to Murphy as the nightmare candidate for any Bush Republican.

But if he doesn’t win, he won’t be defeated. This is a guy who knows what real loss feels like.

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