Yokota airman thankful to be alive after Iraq rocket attack, 10 operations
November 21, 2004
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — On June 16, Debbie Murphy’s worst fears nearly became a reality.
Around 10:30 that night, the wife of Senior Airman Kevin Murphy — a 374th Civil Engineer Squadron member who’d left for Iraq about three weeks earlier — glanced through the peephole of her front door and saw Lt. Col. Martin Granum, Murphy’s Yokota commander, and Master Sgt. Steven Oakes, the unit’s acting first sergeant. Both were wearing their dress-blue uniforms.
“It was pretty scary. I immediately thought the worst,” she recalled. “I was already crying before I opened the door.”
They immediately said her husband was OK, but that he’d been injured earlier that day in a rocket attack near the post exchange at Balad Air Base, Iraq. Before departing the residence, Granum and Oakes left Debbie Murphy with a note reiterating the message that her husband was stable and under the care of U.S. medical personnel.
“But I didn’t sleep any that night,” said Debbie Murphy, who was pregnant at the time. “I wanted to hear his voice first. I wasn’t quite sure the extent of his injuries until I actually spoke with him on the phone. The call finally came at 4:30 in the morning.”
He had shrapnel wounds to his legs, calves, back and chest but sounded more worried about her. She learned that three servicemembers had died in the attack, including one who had been in Iraq for a year and was slated to return home the next day.
Since that day, Kevin Murphy, 28, has undergone 10 surgical procedures and months of painful rehabilitation. Last week, he received the Purple Heart in a standing-room-only ceremony at the Yokota Enlisted Club attended by more than 400 people.
“It was nice to have so many people come out, and it’s an honor to receive an award like that,” Murphy said. “It’s also a blessing to be alive.”
Col. Mark Schissler, the 374th Airlift Wing commander, made the presentation.
“Airman Murphy is a quiet and humble man who’s made uncomfortable by the attention we pay him today,” Schissler said, “but he’s representative of the thousands like him who serve our country so well every day.
“Kevin and his fellow airmen understood the risks and the dangers of military service when they raised their hands and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. There is no higher calling in life, and America is better for the sacrifice they make.”
On May 24, Murphy left Yokota for his first deployment to the Middle East. A heating, ventilation and air-conditioning specialist, he was serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom with Balad’s 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, filling an integral role installing, maintaining and repairing much-needed air-conditioning units as troops battled 120-degree temperatures in the desert.
On the day of the attack, he was performing maintenance on a ventilation system outside the Balad exchange. Other members of his team had gone inside, with shoppers coming in and out of the facility.
In an instant, Murphy heard the sound of enemy mortars, which tore holes in buildings and obliterated parked cars. Hot, burning medal pierced his body.
“They just landed and exploded. There were no alarms or anything. I didn’t hear any. It happened really fast,” he said.
“I was knocked down to one arm. I got up and basically ran. I just got out of there. I actually didn’t know where I was running to. I was in shock. It was all moving so fast.”
After the dust cleared, Murphy was taken to the Balad Air Base hospital, where doctors began the process of removing shrapnel. The next morning, he was flown to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
That’s when he realized just how badly he was hurt.
“I thought I had a few bumps and bruises,” he says. “I didn’t know it was so severe. I thought I had a little scratch, then I saw the bandages they were taking off and putting on.
“They tried to get me up to walk, but it was pretty hard moving around. That’s when the pain hit.”
Murphy spent about three days in Germany, and after two more surgeries, he was transferred to Wilford Hall Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, on June 22. During a monthlong stay, two skin grafts were performed on his right leg.
“That’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “It’s like they took a cheese grater and sliced off a layer of skin from my left leg to place it on the right. It felt like sliding into third base with your bare leg and ripping that top layer of skin off.
“Prior to that, I’d actually been up and moving a little.”
A few days after his arrival, Air Force officials flew Debbie out to Lackland. His father, Michael Taylor, lives in the San Antonio area and also provided support during the recovery.
Murphy remained at Lackland until Sept. 9, making frequent follow-up visits to Wilford Hall as the battle wounds slowly healed.
On Oct. 19 at Yokota, Debbie Murphy gave birth to daughter Amaya.
“It was good to be here to witness it,” the airman said. “After the attack, the biggest thing I remember is being scared, worried about seeing my daughter born. I wanted to be OK to see her.”
Since he returned to Japan, Murphy has continued his physical therapy. More procedures are possible, but he won’t undergo any until his reassignment to Lackland in February.
“I still have a few pieces of shrapnel in my body,” he said. “I’ve got a small fracture in my right elbow from where shrapnel went in and chipped it. There are a few pieces in my leg also.
“Right now, I want to hold off until I get back to Wilford Hall. It depends on whether it worsens. They said it might do more damage to take it out than leave it in.”
Murphy is back in his HVAC shop at Yokota, mostly working in an administrative capacity, although he has taken part in a few outside jobs. The ordeal certainly has offered a fresh perspective on life, he says.
“I’m counting my blessings,” he added. “I’m being more thankful every day for the chance to be alive.”
His wife shares the sentiment.
“We have a new outlook on life, for sure,” she said. “It’s brought us a lot closer together. I was pretty worried until I physically got to the hospital in San Antonio and saw him. It was very emotional.
“I thank God he’s alive, and realize now more than ever how life can be short.”