For acting Army Secretary, life has been a series of twists, turns and luck
By COLBY ITKOWITZ | The Washington Post | Published: May 12, 2016
Patrick J. Murphy was returning from a veterans advocacy event in Washington that Tuesday night, taking the 7:07 p.m. Amtrak Train 188 as he'd done countless times as a former U.S. congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs. He sat in the cafe car writing an analysis of the day's promises made. He was wearing his earbuds, listening to Bruce Springsteen, or maybe it was Beyoncé.
It was just several months earlier that he'd seen President Barack Obama at a conference in Philadelphia, who pulled him aside and said he wanted to finish his final year in office strong and wanted Murphy on his team. The next day White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called about an opportunity at the Pentagon and in early March Defense Secretary Aston Carter offered him a top appointment as undersecretary of the Army.
The FBI was still vetting him on May 12, 2015, as he rode the train home to his wife, Jenni, and two young children. He stayed on the train past Philadelphia to Trenton, which was actually a shorter commute to his Bucks County home. As they pulled out of the Philly station, the train began to shake, then tilt violently to the left and then to the right. He braced himself, gripping the table as other passengers were tossed from their seats.
"I remember thinking it was the end. It was pretty dramatic," Murphy said. "I was just fighting to hold on."
Then the train carrying 243 people slammed on its side to the ground below and everything went dark.
Murphy was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he immediately checked his arms and legs to see if they were still there. People were screaming. There was blood and debris, the air was hazy. The first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress, Murphy was back in what looked like a war zone. That's when his military training kicked in.
"I did what any other soldier would do," Murphy said. "Take control of the situation and be there for the person on your left and your right."
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A year later, Murphy is in charge of the entire U.S. Army -- acting as secretary while Obama's nominee, Eric Fanning, waits in congressional confirmation purgatory. It's a civilian post rarely held by a veteran, particularly one who had served so recently.
It's a job he never envisioned, not in his wildest projections of his future. But then, that's how Murphy's entire professional life has gone.
Murphy, cherub-faced and blue-eyed, grew up in a scrappy Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, the son of a police officer and a legal secretary in a devout Irish Catholic home. As a kid he brawled in neighborhood street fights and did so poorly in school that he didn't get into the one college where he'd applied. He could have joined other aimless friends in taking odd blue-collar jobs, but instead he enrolled in community college, determined to find a path. A year later he was accepted to Kings College, the small liberal arts school near Scranton where he'd originally wanted to go.
It was at Kings when he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), motivated by the monthly stipend. But soon, the army training proved to be exactly the sort of discipline and purpose he'd been seeking.
When he became an army cadet during a relatively peaceful time in the mid-1990s, he couldn't have known that in less than a decade the United States would be in two devastating wars. Or that his deployment in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne would open his eyes to the indifference soldiers felt from their government. That it would spur him to run for Congress as a Democrat with just $350 in his bank account. And that he'd beat an incumbent Republican at only 33 years old.
But then, he also couldn't have known that after just two terms, he'd lose his seat in the 2010 so-called tea party wave election. Or that a subsequent run for state Attorney General would be stymied by a Bill Clinton endorsement of his primary opponent. That he'd dust himself off and parlay his rare mix of military and political knowledge into an MSNBC contributor gig that soon morphed into his own monthly Sunday series about veterans issues called, "Taking the Hill."
"You have to ask yourself why are you on this certain path," Murphy said in a recent interview. "No matter what happens you should be OK with the results. I used to say Judgment Day is more important than election day, and character is who you are when no one is looking. If you work hard and stay focused to make small and big decisions with the best intentions, things will work out."
As a congressman, Murphy's chief accomplishments were military-related. He led the push to repeal the 1990s Don't Ask, Don't Tell law that had allowed gay soldiers to serve, but only if their sexuality was kept secret. He also authored a post-9/11 GI bill that provides higher-education benefits to veterans.
"He's just one of those rare people who can go really deep on policy, as he has on making lives of veterans better. But he also has a huge heart and I think people can see that," said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director. "There is something genuine about the questions he's asking. He's not going through the motions. That's what I think is pretty unique about him."
Psaki, who met Murphy in 2006 when she was working at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his name had been bandied about in the Obama administration for years as the consummate public servant. Obama is passionate about encouraging people with "incredible potential" to stay in government, she said.
So when the undersecretary job at the Army opened, Obama saw his chance to bring Murphy back.
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Three days after Murphy was sworn into his new job, he stepped in as acting secretary while the Senate dragged its feet on Obama's nominee.
The first thing he wanted to do was send an email introducing himself to the team. His assistant assumed he meant to people in their Pentagon office. No, he meant the entire 1.3 million soldiers and civilians in the Army.
"We're used to being risk adverse and he said he wanted to figure out how to talk to the army by sending an email to everyone in the army," said Valerie Miller, Murphy's chief of staff. "No one had ever done that before. We said, 'No, the secretary shouldn't. . . . there's a chain of command,' and he said, 'Nope, I want to do it.' And he was totally right."
When Murphy travels to army bases domestically or abroad, he wakes up early with the soldiers and does physical training, or PT, with them. He engages with them on their level because he is one of them, says those who work closest with him. He looks for small ways to improve their lives. He issued a rule that the people working in his office no longer have to wear their dress uniform to work because he knows how expensive they are to get dry cleaned, Miller said.
He authorized another change last week that soldiers could use earphones while in uniform when working out alone in the gym -- something previously not allowed.
Jason Easom, a veteran and senior aide to Murphy, said soldiers tell him they love that Murphy is a "soldier's secretary." Murphy is active on social media pushing a positive image of the Army.
"People enjoy the genuineness behind him," Easom said. "He does not look at a general or a private any different. He treats them all with the same respect - every soldier is the same in his eyes. That's what I respect the most."
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When Murphy realized he wasn't going to die in the Amtrak crash, he stood up and looked around him at the disheveled, bloody passengers, some moaning in pain, others in panic. It was dark and dusty and the doors were too mangled to be opened. So he climbed on a seat and punched out the emergency window, the glass raining back down into the car.
He began attending to the victims of the crash, hoisting those able out of the car, applying pressure to wounds and comforting those too wounded to move. He wasn't the only hero that night. He and others waited until the first responders came minutes later.
Jeff Sturdevant, who was returning home with a coworker to New Jersey from a business meeting in Philadelphia, was in the car with Murphy. He was among the unconscious who Murphy woke up. Sturdevant is also a veteran and his training kicked in too. He climbed out of the car and put out a small brush fire just starting to form. He then went back in to find his injured coworker, he said. His coworker was holding onto Murphy's personal notebook and iPad while Murphy went about helping people, Sturdevant said.
Murphy, who at that time was still employed by MSNBC, also tweeted photos of the wreckage that were used widely by news organizations.
He walked away with only a few scrapes and bruises and a concussion. But the several days after - when a neurologist ordered rest - gave Murphy time to think about his priorities. He'd already accepted Obama's Pentagon offer, but it had meant walking away from a lucrative MSNBC contract.
Last year's near death experience cemented for him that it was the right decision.
"I wanted to make sure I was living a purpose-filled life. The chance to go back and serve my brothers and sisters in uniform is something that I will never take for granted," he said. "There were eight people killed (that night) and I walked away relatively unscathed. I am eternally grateful to be given another chance to serve my country and be a good father and husband to my family."