Penn State’s Real Hero: Lte. Michael P. Murphy

Several people have commented on the Steve Breen cartoon about the Penn State scandal I posted on the 14th.  Many are starting to think differently about the school’s late football coach Joe Paterno who died this past January of lung cancer, after being forcibly retired.  Paterno espoused a strict code of moral integrity and personal ethics; attributes he bestowed upon his players and – vicariously – upon the Penn State student body.  But, investigations into the scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky reveal that Paterno and other university officials knew more about Sandusky’s pedophilic behavior and did nothing to stop it.  Their biggest concern was the school’s football program.  As with many such institutions, Penn State regarded its football program with divine reverence.  It’s an extension of how this nation feels about its professional athletes.  But, as Penn State grapples with how to survive in the aftermath of the Sandusky mess, I feel the school should remove its statue of Paterno and replace it with an alumnus named Michael P. Murphy.

Murphy grew up on Long Island, New York and graduated from Penn State in 1998 with dual degrees in political science and psychology.  He immediately joined the U.S. Navy and became a Navy SEAL, the same elite warrior force that took out Osama bin Laden last year.  But, Murphy died in Afghanistan in June of 2005; caught up in a firefight, as he and his comrades were ambushed by Al Qaeda locals.  In an operation called “Red Wings,” Murphy and his fellow SEALs entered hostile mountainous territory to search for an Al Qaeda leader.  They encountered a goat herder.  As commander of the team, Murphy suddenly had a difficult decision to make: kill the goat herder, or just let him go.  They couldn’t tell if the man was an Al Qaeda operative, or just a simple villager tending to his goats.  If he was the latter, the SEALs risked killing an innocent civilian; a fact the American press would exploit once it became known.  But, if the man was sympathetic to Al Qaeda, he could reveal the team’s presence in the region.  Murphy chose to let him go.

Hours later the group became embroiled in gun fire.  It’s likely that innocuous goat herder had turned on them.  Murphy had to dart into an open area to call for backup.  Once exposed, he suffered several fatal bullet wounds.  Two of the other SEALs also died.  Only one, Marcus Luttrell, survived and managed to escape.  A helicopter bearing 8 additional SEALs and 8 Army Night Stalkers arrived, but was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed.  All 16 men aboard it were killed.  Eventually, the military recovered all the bodies of the dead Americans, and Luttrell made it home.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Murphy the Medal of Honor.  Murphy became the first Navy SEAL since the Vietnam War to receive the medal and the first to receive it posthumously.  He was also the first MOH recipient in the modern “War on Terror.”

In 2009, Luttrell published a book detailing much of the mission, Lone Survivor.  In 2010, Gary Williams published a brief biography of Murphy, SEAL of Honor, which focused heavily on “Operation Red Wings.”  On May 7, 2011 – on what would have been Murphy’s 35th birthday – the U.S. Navy launched a destroyer vessel, the U.S.S. Michael Murphy.

I never met Michael Murphy or anyone in his family or circle of friends.  I’d never heard of him or “Operation Red Wings” until Bush awarded Murphy the Medal of Honor.  But, I’ve become fascinated with him and his accomplishments.  He’s become a personal source of inspiration.  Murphy packed more into his 29 years on Earth than most people do in a lifetime.  More importantly, he appears to have been an individual of higher moral character and integrity than any football coach or university executive.  If Murphy was willing to risk his life over a goat herder, I’m quite certain he wouldn’t have kept silent about a child molester in his midst.

Although I never attended Penn State and I’m not a football fan – I got upset in 1990 when the local NBC affiliate interrupted an episode of The Golden Girls to announce the Dallas Cowboys had fired head coach Tom Landry – I feel a statue of Murphy is more appropriate for Penn State.  It won’t erase the memories of the horrible Sandusky incident.  But, it would be better for the school to acknowledge a real hero.

Murphy in Afghanistan, June 2005

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