Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), a fierce critic of the Iraq war, died Monday at age 77 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia. Murtha was the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress.
Murtha, who had been suffering complications from gallbladder surgery, had a distinguished 37-year career in the US Marine Corps. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel in 1990. Also, Congressman Murtha was respected for his firsthand knowledge of military and national security issues. He was a trusted adviser to presidents of both parties.
Although Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcomittee, supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, he called for an immediate withdrawal two years later as the violence escalated and casualties began to mount.
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“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” Murtha wrote in a November 17, 2005 op-ed. “It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.”
In September 2006, he and his Democratic colleagues released a scathing 12-page report that showed how the military was plagued by readiness failures just as thousands of active-duty soldiers were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. At a news conference, where he discussed details of his findings, he released a resolution that called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
“For the good of the country, the United States of America must restore credibility both at home and abroad and the first step toward restoring that credibility must be to demonstrate accountability for the mistakes that have been made in prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by immediately effecting the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and replacing him with someone capable of leading the nation’s military in a strategy to resolve our deployment in Iraq,” Murtha’s resolution said.
Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wisconsin), the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that “Murtha understood the misery of war.”
He “was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress and he was incredibly effective in his service in the House,” Obey said. “Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today.”
Murtha was also involved in his fair share of political scandals, notably, the Abscam corruption probe three decades ago. He was caught on tape turning down a $50,000 bribe but signaling that he may be open to taking payment in the future.
“Six congressmen and one senator were convicted in that case. Murtha was not charged, but the government named him as an unindicted co-conspirator and he testified against two other congressmen,” the Associated Press reported.
He was also scrutinized more recently invovling special-interest lobbying and his close ties to a firm founded by a former colleague.
After Murtha became chairman of the defense subcommittee in 1989, “Paul Magliocchetti, a former subcommittee staffer, left Capitol Hill to found the now-defunct PMA Group. The lobbying firm, which specialized in obtaining earmarks for defense contractors, was one Murtha’s biggest sources of campaign cash,” the AP reported.
In 2007 and 2008, Murtha and two fellow Democrats on the subcommittee directed $137 million to defense contractors who were paying PMA to get them government business. Between 1989 and 2009, Murtha collected more than $2.3 million in campaign contributions from PMA’s lobbyists and corporate clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.
Shortly after the 2008 election, the FBI raided PMA’s offices as part of a criminal investigation. In a separate development in January 2009, FBI agents raided the offices of a defense contractor from Murtha’s district – Windber-based Kuchera Defense Systems Inc. – that had received millions of dollars in earmarks sponsored by Murtha while contributing tens of thousands to his campaigns.
Around the same time, the House ethics committee was investigating the link between PMA-related campaign contributions and earmarks, but it had not named a subcommittee to look into possible violations by individual lawmakers.
Murtha represented the people of Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District since 1974 and was serving his 19th term. Murtha was the eighth most senior member of the 435-member House of Representatives. Of the nearly 10,600 men and women who have served in the House since 1789, only 72 served longer than he did.
Murtha worked hard to bring thousands of family-sustaining jobs to western Pennsylvania and was intent on attracting health care, defense, medical research, tourism and high-tech jobs that would boost the region’s economy.
His efforts transformed communities and brought thousands of jobs to the district he represented. He also co-founded the Congressional Steel Caucus in 1979 to preserve what remained of America’s steel industry by fighting subsidized steel imports. Years ago he began to support funding for alternative energy technology, providing research dollars for military wind energy, fuel cell technology and a coal-based jet fuel currently being tested in Air Force planes.
He also played a big role in heritage preservation and tourism efforts throughout Pennsylvania. In addition, he fought for a patient’s bill of rights, prescription drug benefits, a higher minimum wage and protecting Medicare, Social Security and veterans’ and miners’ benefits.
Some of Murtha’s many honors include the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, the National Breast Cancer Coalition Leadership Award, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s Government Leader of the Year, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s National Patriots Award and Pennsylvania’s two highest honors, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) said Murtha’s was a “public servant in every sense of the word and his passing is a great loss to all of Pennsylvania.”
A special election will be held to fill Murtha’s seat. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell did not say when that would take place although he has to decide on a date within 10 days. The state’s primary is scheduled for May 18. Rendell said that would be the best time to hold the special election because it would save taxpayers money.