Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Johnstown, Cambria County
Jack Murtha has served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for Pennsylvania.
John Patrick Murtha was born on June 17, 1932, in New Martinsville, West Virginia. After serving in the United States Marine Corps, Murtha returned to Pennsylvania where he grew up to began his political career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1969. In 1974, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives representing the 12th Congressional District. Although his antiwar perspective on the War on Iraq has attracted some negative attention, Murtha continued to bring employment back to Western Pennsylvania and maintained his status of an authority on military issues. He died on February 8, 2010 from complications following surgery. He served in the U.S. House longer than any other Pennsylvania Representative in history.
On June 17, 1932, John Patrick Murtha was born in New Martinsville, West Virginia. He and his family then relocated to Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania; in this Westmoreland County suburb of Pittsburgh, he attended and graduated from Ramsey High School in 1950. After attending the all-male boarding school, Kiskiminetas Spring School, in 1951, Murtha pursued a college education at Washington and Jefferson College. However, he left the school after a short time in 1952 to join the United States Marine Corps to assist his country in the fight of the Korean War. During the course of his service, Murtha earned a prestigious American Spirit Honor Award, an award granted to fewer than one in ten thousand recruits. This medal is awarded to those in training divisions or centers within the United States who illustrate “outstanding qualities of leadership best expressing the American spirit- honor, initiative, loyalty, and high example to comrades in arms.” Even at a young age, Murtha demonstrated his dedication in his service to the Marine Corps and to his country.
After his return from duty, he became a drill instructor at Parris Island, was chosen for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, and joined the Second Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was appointed to the rank of Captain in the United States Marine Corps from 1952 to 1955, but left active duty to join the Reserves after he and his wife Joyce married on June 10, 1955. The couple moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1959 when Captain Murtha pursued a position of authority in the 34th Special Infantry Company of the Marine Corps Reserves. He also ran a small business in Johnstown and returned to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill for his education. In 1962, he received his B.A. in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh and went on to take classes toward a Master’s degree in Economics and Political Science from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Murtha did not remain stateside for long as he voluntarily served as an S-2 intelligence officer for the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment and 1st Marine Division in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. In this time, he received the Bronze Star with Combat “V,” two Purple Hearts, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
Returning from abroad, John Murtha ran and was elected to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1969. After five years of serving in the State House, he was elected Democrat to the Ninety-third Congress in a special election to the United States House of Representatives in 1974. Murtha succeeded United States Representative John P. Saylor, who died in office. Murtha is the first Veteran from Vietnam combat to serve in the United States Congress.
Unlike many other politicians, Murtha was very active in his preliminary years in Congress. As soon as 1975, Murtha was requested by President Ford to participate in the first Congressional fact-finding mission in Vietnam after all United States’ troops were removed. In 1978, Murtha went back to Vietnam to deliberate with the Vietnamese people concerning any Americans missing in action and requested them to return any recently found remains to the United States.
Within the first five years of Congressional experience, Murtha co-founded the Congressional Steel Caucus in 1979 to protect American jobs and the steel industry from outside steel manufacturers. In 1980, Murtha was caught up in the ABSCAM scandal. He was filmed on tape being offered bribes from an Arab sheik in exchange for political favors; he did not accept them. While one senator and five other members of the United States House were convicted of bribery and conspiracy, Murtha was never indicted.
Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill sent Murtha in 1982 and 1983 to evaluate President Reagan’s plans to involve U.S. Marines in the center of Beirut, Lebanon’s civil instability. After his visit to Beirut in November 1982, Murtha promoted the withdrawal of troops from the conflict zone. He concluded that U.S. troops were susceptible to harm and were not adequate to fulfill the State Department’s agenda. Later in October 1983, a truck filled with explosives killed 241 U.S. troop members at their Marine contingent at the Beirut airport.
John Murtha continued to have influence not only in the United States but internationally throughout the 1980s. In 1984, he was involved in a Congressional delegation that supported American involvement in economic and military reforms in the Soviet Union just before the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. He demonstrated his desire for global stability in the long run by promoting essential funds that was used to remove nuclear equipment and warheads from threatening countries. Under the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, Murtha was appointed to oversee or co-observe presidential elections in newly-democratic nations such as Philippines, El Salvador, Panama, and Bosnia. His involvement reflected not only the United States’ concern for providing a fair democracy for other nations but promoting American self-interests as well.
Furthermore, John Murtha contributed as an active player in the Afghani defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Collaborating with Congressman Charlie Wilson on the Defense Appropriations Committee, Murtha secretly supplied funding in order for the CIA to distribute military weapons to the Afghanis. This support enabled the Afghani fighters to effectively resist the Soviet forces by successfully shooting down Soviet planes. After a 37 year career, Murtha retired from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Colonel in 1990 receiving the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
Since the 1990s, Congressman Murtha has increasingly begun to speak out publicly in his opposition of governmental policy issues. For example, he outwardly spoke against President George H.W. Bush’s proposal to deploy twenty-five thousand United States’ troops to Somalia in December 1992 in an appearance on Larry King Live. Later that year, Murtha wrote newly-elected President Clinton a letter proposing a subtle withdrawal of U.S. military forces.
In addition, he wrote a book From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security, that provided a behind the scenes perspective of past and present United States defense and foreign policy systems during his service in the United States’ Congress. According to Richard Robbins from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, “Murtha has had a unique vantage point on the passing scene. It was therefore startling to read his assessment of U.S. foreign intelligence. It is not encouraging. ‘I have learned from experience,’ Murtha writes, ‘that there is often a wide gap between Washington policy makers’ perceptions and reality.’” Therefore, Murtha provided an alternative perspective of the U.S. Government that not always supports the system.
Most recently, Murtha continued to fight against some governmental decisions and was known for his active participation in the fight against the presence of United States’ military troops in Iraq. Although he supported President Bush’s decision to deploy troops to the Middle East in 2002, he shifted directions and found diminishing legitimacy for the United States’ involvement in this conflict. In his November 17, 2005, news conference, Murtha stated, “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot 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.” After two years of combat, he insisted the U.S. Military’s future is at risk and further involvement would hurt the United States and Iraq’s progress in the long run.
In his opposition to the United States’ involvement in the War in Iraq, he received both praise and resistance from the American public. After stating his troop withdrawal proposal in 2005, Murtha’s ideas were rejected and highly criticized by many Republican members of Congress. In response to Murtha’s views of immediate withdrawals of American troops in Iraq, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert stated that Murtha and Democratic supporters “would prefer that the United States surrender to terrorists who would harm innocent Americans.” As recently as 2006, some questioned whether Murtha still deserved the awards he received during Vietnam due to his opposition. However, Murtha received support from many Congress members of both political parties and from antiwar campaigns. His long term experience in the U.S. military and his work with military issues throughout his Congressional terms earned Murtha much respect throughout Congress.
Not only was Congressman Murtha very influential in the Defense and Foreign Policy sector of the U.S. Government, he was very active locally within the 12th Congressional District. Issues such as pursuing better health care and health benefits for people across the country and employment were among two of Murtha’s objectives. In particular, he and his wife Joyce were involved in developing research initiatives to support women battling breast cancer. In collaboration with breast cancer advocacy groups, Congressman Murtha provided over $2 million for breast cancer research through the U.S. Department of Defense. Thus the Joyce Murtha Breast Cancer Center, located within the Windber Medical Center in Windber, Pennsylvania, provides state of the art diagnostic equipment and facilities.
In an attempt to develop a national program to assist children and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses, Murtha co-authored a child hospice bill to provide grants to children’s hospitals, hospices and home health agencies. This legislation would train and educate those responsible for caring for child patients and would provide funds to be used for research in child pain and symptom management. This bill also re-shaped Medicare and other programs to ease the burden on decision makers when making end-of-life decisions for children. Murtha remained active in pursuing his mission to improve access to preventative medicine, expand medical research and guarantee affordable health care to benefit United States’ citizens throughout the later years of his tenure.
Congressman Murtha was very important to the economic stability of the 12th Congressional District. After the most recent flood in 1977, the city of Johnstown had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. As steel mills were not able to re-establish themselves after the flood, Murtha saw the need to diversify industries within the community so the city would no longer be reliant on only one sector of the economy. Therefore, he brought industry and military contracts from the U.S. Government to corporations such as CTC, Concurrent Technologies Corporation, that brought high paying employment into the area. Johnstown is only one example of his efforts as he contributed to areas across Western Pennsylvania. His impact on developing local industries reflected his hope that young people would not depart but continue to stay in the area.
In 2005, The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and the University of Cancer Institute joined with Conemaugh Health System to develop a constituent part of the UPMC Cancer Center in Downtown Johnstown. In his honor, the John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center provides local patients the finest cancer care without having to leave the community. Murtha’s contributions will not only be remembered just in the health care system alone. The city of Johnstown has honored the local Congressman by establishing the Murtha airport as well as the Murtha highway in honor of his assistance in remaking the city of Johnstown from an impoverished steel town to a hub for military defense projects. These institutions honoring John Murtha will not be the last as he continues with great effort and commitment to improve the area of the 12th Congressional District.
During his 36th year in the House of Representatives, Congressman Murtha had gallbladder surgery in January 2010. Complications set in and on February 8, 2010, Pennsylvania’s longest serving congressman died at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia. He was survived by his wife of many years, Joyce, and children Donna, John, and Patrick. Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell was quoted after Murtha’s passing: “It’s hard to say anyone’s irreplaceable, but Jack comes as close as anyone we’re going to find.”
From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2003
“Concurrent Technologies Corporation.” 2008. 3 Mar. 2008. <>http://www.ctc.com/>.
“Congressman John P. Murtha.” 2008. United States House of Representatives. 24 Jan. 2008. <>http://www.murtha.house.gov/>.
Coulter, Ann. “John Murtha: Caving in to Arabs Since 1980.” Human Events 63.1 (26 Feb. 2007): 6.
Faher, Mike. “A huge loss to our region”: Murtha called ‘irreplaceable.’” Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 9 Feb. 2010: Local Section.
“UPMC Cancer Centers and UPMC Lee Regional Announce Opening of the John P. Murtha Pavilion.” University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. 1 Aug. 2002. 6 Apr. 2008. <http://www.upci.upmc.edu/news/upci_news/ 2002/080102_upmccc_murtha.html>.