Rep. John Murtha, who said the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq was based on "flawed policy wrapped in illusion" and called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops there, is being remembered as an advocate on Capitol Hill for those serving in military uniform.
Rep. John Murtha, who said the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq was based on “flawed policy wrapped in illusion” and called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops there, is being remembered as an advocate on Capitol Hill for those serving in military uniform.
The Pennsylvania Democrat died Monday at a hospital after suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. He was 77.
Murtha’s large intestine was damaged during the surgery at a hospital in Bethesda, Md., said longtime friend Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa. An infection and fever led him to be admitted days later, on Jan. 31, to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., where he died.
Murtha, a former Marine who became the de facto voice of veterans on Capitol Hill, was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress and was “incredibly effective in his service in the House,” said Rep. David Obey, a Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
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“He understood the misery of war,” Obey said. “Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today.”
Murtha voted in 2002 to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq, but his growing frustration over the administration’s handling of the war prompted him in November 2005 to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops.
“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” he said. “It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.”
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that in part because of Murtha, “America is now on track to removing all combat troops from that country by this summer.”
Murtha’s opposition to the Iraq war rattled Washington, where he enjoyed bipartisan respect for his work on military issues. On Capitol Hill, he was seen as speaking for those in uniform when it came to military matters.
President Barack Obama called Murtha, who was known in his home state for helping bring money and projects to areas depressed by the decline of the coal and steel industries, “a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years” with a “tough-as-nails” reputation.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remembered Murtha as a tireless advocate for veterans and the military.
“From health care to weapons procurement, from shipbuilding to pay and benefits, no one understood the needs of our modern military better than he did,” Mullen said in a statement. “That we remain the greatest military in the history of the world is testament in no small part to his vigilance and stewardship.”
In 1974, Murtha, then an officer in the Marine Reserves, became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Ethical questions often shadowed his congressional service, but he was best known for being among Congress’ most hawkish Democrats. He wielded considerable clout for two decades as the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending.
Known for his seriousness, Murtha also had a lighter side. Gov. Ed Rendell recalled Monday that “he was a funny guy, he always enjoyed a good laugh and he was somebody who was a great and loyal friend.”
Rendell said he hadn’t decided when to schedule a special election to replace Murtha.
Murtha was born June 17, 1932. The former newspaper delivery boy left college in 1952 to join the Marines, where he rose through the ranks to become a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., and later served in the 2nd Marine Division. He settled in Johnstown, then volunteered for Vietnam, where he served as an intelligence officer and earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
He was serving in the Pennsylvania House when he was elected to Congress in a special election. In 1990, he retired from the Marine Reserves as a colonel.
His criticism of the Iraq war intensified in 2006, when he accused Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians “in cold blood” at Haditha, after one Marine died and two were wounded by a roadside bomb.
Critics said Murtha unfairly held the Marines responsible before an investigation was concluded and fueled enemy retaliation. He said that the war couldn’t be won militarily and that such incidents dimmed the prospect for a political solution.
Murtha died with his family at his bedside, the Virginia hospital said.
Kimberly Hefling contributed to this story from Washington.