Despite taking place in the Information Age, very few of the heroic exploits of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines since September 11, 2001, have made their way into the living rooms of ordinary Americans — at least in any lasting way.
Whether this is the result of changing values among the American people, the general population’s perpetually dwindling attention span, or because there are so many things closer to home our nation is choosing to focus on instead of our service men and women’s gallant deeds and efforts (whether that be a rocky national economy or the latest season of American Idol), the fact is this generation has failed to identify and treasure its incarnations of historic military heroes like Audie Murphy, Jimmy Doolittle, Pappy Boyington, Bill Pitsenbarger, Bud Day, and countless others.
This disappointing reality is not unique to the current decade. Who, for example, can name the most recent pre-global war on terror (GWOT) recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor? The names of Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon — two Army special operations sergeants who received the nation’s highest award for their heroic actions in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — are utterly foreign to the vast majority of the same American population that can name the latest movie star to file for divorce, the latest starlet to have borne a child out of wedlock, or the latest teen sensation to enter alcohol rehab.
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting on stories of true heroism among the men and women serving this country in war zones around the world. After all, how can people know of the deeds being done by our best and brightest if the news media — whose sole raison d’être is to report on deeds and events — doesn’t the job it exists to do?
This lack of reporting on American military heroism isn’t due to a lack of media access to the military in any form. On the contrary, Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom have begun a new era of access for journalists who desire to observe firsthand coalition military operations abroad, on the front lines, or in the rear, as part of the Department of Defense’s media embed program.
The ability to embed with coalition troops and report from the battlefront has spawned a new generation of independent combat journalists. Intrepid individuals — often veterans — like Michael Yon, J.D. Johannes, Michael Totten, Bill Roggio, Pat Dollard, and Bill Ardolino have followed in the footsteps of legendary World War II reporter Ernie Pyle, giving generously of their time and resources to travel to and within the combat zones that make up the many fronts of the global war on terror, for the dual purpose of accurately reporting on events (something so many media outlets have demonstrated time and again that they are incapable of doing) and of telling stories that simply would not make it back to the American people any other way.
However, a mere handful of individuals cannot, by themselves, provide a nation with enough of that which it so desperately needs in this age of ephemeral pleasures and doom-and-gloom news reports: true stories of courage and sacrifice, bravery, and gallantry shown by our fighting men and women around the world on a daily basis.
In reality, there have been countless cases of exceptional courage under fire to this point in the war on terror, and there will doubtless be many more before this generational conflict has drawn to a close.
It is cliché (but entirely accurate) to say that every man and woman fighting for America deserves respect and acknowledgment. It is also accurate, though, that there are some who go above and beyond even the bravery and valor shown by the “average” soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who puts his or her life on the line, day in and day out, in defense of America and in pursuit of our nation’s goals, safety, and interests.
Names like Eric Moser and Chris Corriveau, two paratroopers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder against dozens of al-Qaeda fighters on a rooftop in Iraq, fighting for their lives and for their country’s honor; Zach Rhyner, an Air Force combat controller who saved the lives of dozens of American special forces soldiers through his quick, effective actions in the middle of an overwhelming Taliban ambush; and Michael Monsoor, a Navy SEAL who leapt onto an enemy grenade, sacrificing himself to save the lives of his teammates despite the fact he was the only person who could have escaped the blast with his life, are far more deserving of remembrance than are the pop idols with which our nation has filled the place formerly reserved for such true heroes as these.
This is far too brief a space to recount even a fraction of the total number of heroic stories that deserve remembrance and celebration on this Memorial Day and every day hereafter. So I will today limit myself to presenting a selection of four exceptional warriors — one from each branch of service — whose names and deeds every American should know. These stories alone do not even begin to break the surface of the reservoir of deeds those fighting for our nation have carried out. However, each of these men is a true hero in every sense of the word, having fought in defense of America and having made the ultimate sacrifice for his mission and for his fellow men.
Michael P. Murphy, United States Navy
Michael P. Murphy, a native of Smithtown, New York, had a passion for history and a desire to do great things. While attending Penn State University, Murphy — or “Murph,” as he was known — became interested in joining the Navy SEALs, the U.S. Navy’s elite sea-air-land commando group.
Upon graduating from college, Murphy declined to attend the several law schools to which he was accepted, opting instead for Officer Candidate School and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in Coronado, California.
In April, 2005 his SEAL Delivery Vehicle team was deployed to Afghanistan — a trip from which the young lieutenant would never return.
On June 28 of that year, Murphy was leading a four-man SEAL squad in Kunar Province, in remote eastern Afghanistan, when his team came into contact with three goat herders. After weighing their options, Murphy and his men decided to release the three civilians unharmed. This humane move would end up being costly, as the Afghans immediately went to the local Taliban leadership and reported the SEALs’ presence.
As Murphy’s small team moved onto a sheer mountainside, forty Taliban fighters ambushed them, pinning them down under withering fire. All four SEALs were immediately wounded, with the squad’s radio operator taking a bullet to the hand as he tried to make a radio call to the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at Bagram Air Base.
Recognizing the necessity of making contact with a supporting force, and that it would be impossible to do so in the ravine the four SEALs were being forced into by the overwhelming enemy force, Murphy dashed into the open, exposing himself to greater enemy fire in exchange for a clearer transmission signal.
Murphy managed to reach the QRF and provided his team’s position and status while taking and returning fire, despite being hit in the back by an enemy round. A special operations helicopter arrived on the scene shortly, only to be downed by a Taliban-fired rocket propelled grenade. The aircraft crashed, killing all 16 SEALs and Army special operations aviators aboard.
Nearly out of ammunition and with their rescuers having been killed, Murphy and his fellow SEALs continued to fight until they had repelled the Taliban ambush — an action that cost three of the four their lives. By the end of that two-hour battle, Murphy and two of his SEALs were dead. However, their actions allowed the fourth member of their team, a SEAL named Marcus Luttrell, to survive the battle and to evade enemy capture until being rescued by U.S. forces four days later.
“By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit and inspirational devotion to his men in the face of certain death,” says the official Navy report of the incident, “Lt. Murphy was able to relay the position of his unit, an act that ultimately led to the rescue of Luttrell and the recovery of the remains of the three who were killed in the battle.
On October 22, 2007, Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, by President Bush, who presented the award to Murphy’s parents and brother in a White House ceremony.
According to the Medal’s citation, Murphy’s willingness to “gallantly give his life for his country and for the cause of freedom” in a remote corner of Afghanistan exemplified “selfless leadership, courageous actions, and extraordinary devotion to duty.” It demonstrated all of this indeed — as well as a devotion to his brothers in arms, whom he died both saving and trying to save.