Murphy wins national award for service to veterans

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Michael "Doc" Murphy and his wife, Barbara, don't spend may uninterrupted nights at home. There's always a military veteran somewhere that needs help.
   As state senior vice commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Murphy also is active on the Board of Directors for the Vietnam Veterans of America in Elizabethton, Disabled Veterans of America, and shares work with a team of veteran service officers. He has been instrumental in breaking through government red tape to help veterans receive medical benefits or honors due them.
   On July 6, in Washington, D.C., Murphy was honored as the "Outstanding Veteran-Patient National Winner" of the year, receiving special recognition of "outstanding contributions to country and fellow veterans and selfless sharing and caring in assisting veterans and veteran patients."
   Murphy, who served as a corpsman with the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or Lima 3/5 in Vietnam, also received the state and regional awards prior to the honor in Washington.
   Murphy won the state award about six months ago, then advanced to the regionals, winning there as well. "They told me they were going to put it in for national," he said, but with more than 1,000 applicants, he didn't figure his chances were very good.
   "So I get back from service officers training in Myrtle Beach on a Sunday night. I walk in and the phone rings and they say, 'We just want to notify you that you need to show up in Washington, D.C. You've been selected as the national winner for service to veterans and to veteran patients,' " he said.
   "I was so humbled. This medal they gave me weighs a half-pound at least," he said. "I just feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."
   While talking with the STAR during a late-night interview, the Murphys' other telephone rang. "It's no exaggeration that he handles a couple hundred veterans every year," Barbara said. The call on the other line was from a veteran on the other side of Greeneville.
   "He heard about Mike and came all the way out here [to Watauga] to talk to him because he was having problems getting care at the VA Hospital. Mike sat down with him -- I don't think it was an hour even -- and recognized some of the symptoms," she said.
   The veteran wanted to tell Murphy that his new medication is working and his issues are being dealt with. "Now that Mike pointed out that one of the underlying problems was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, his life is starting to improve," Barbara said.
   "A lot of these veterans that have called at 2 or 4 in the morning are ready to kill themselves. Mike talks them out of it. This guy was one, too," she said.
   At the awards ceremony in Washington, Murphy credited his work partly to his father and also to a fellow soldier in Vietnam. "I let them know that I wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the man whose family I had just located who sacrificed his life," he said.
   After 34 years of searching, thanks to Barbara and computer technology, Murphy finally located the man's family in Ohio.
   "I had been in Vietnam quite a while and I wasn't in to meeting new people because it hurt too much when I lost them," Murphy said. As a medic, "I had to depend on certain people to give me cover. I wanted somebody that was good on the machine gun," he said. Burt "Rusty" Miller of Ohio was one of those men.
   "This fellow was just awesome. He was the nicest friend you could ever have, but if you were the enemy he was the worst person you would ever want to deal with. He wasn't a guy that put his head down when he got shot at."
   Miller was 20 and had been in Vietnam only three months when he was killed. "At night, when we'd dig in, I'd dig in by him -- not only because I wanted him to cover me, because we got hit more at night than the daytime, but also because when we got attacked, the first place they wanted to hit was the machine gun position."
   Murphy and Miller developed a close friendship which endured until Miller's death. "We were at a place that we called Charlie Ridge, southwest of Da Nang in the An Hoa Valley, which was the main infiltration route for the North Vietnamese coming off of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail," Murphy said.
   The enemy was called "Charlie," he said, "and we called it Charlie Ridge because you always got into a fight when you went up there."
   Miller and Murphy were part of a reconnaissance team for their battalion. "We were the carrot in front of the donkey," Murphy said. "We'd go out there waiting to get hit. We were supposed to be going out there sneaking around to find them, but they always knew where we were."
   When the recon team went out, he said, "You had two people on a machine gun team: one that feeds the ammo and one that carries the gun. Me and his A-gunner had slid down through this crevice on the side of a mountain to a little plateau. He was coming down with the gun. It was all rock and we were up about 5,000 feet," Murphy said.
   "As we were coming down I saw this hand grenade coming through the air up over one of the boulders. It landed on his stomach. He was halfway laying down coming down this crevice. Our eyes locked on each other. Of course with the adrenaline, everything went in slow motion. He looked at me and I looked at him, and he took the gun and he pulled it over the hand grenade and pulled it tight to himself. He blew in half.
   "When I got untangled and I ran to him, he was still able to talk. He was losing a lot of blood and I knew there was nothing I could do for him. His lungs and heart were exposed. I sat him in my lap with my arms around him. He said, 'Doc, don't worry about me, I'm going to a better place. Take care of the fellows.' With that he passed.
   "We bagged up as much as we could of him and we moved on. But I made a promise to myself that I was going to someday find his family and let them know what kind of sacrifice he had made."
   Murphy said Miller was never written up for any type of valor medal or recognition. "The military covered it up. Come to find out, they said that he stepped on a land mine."
   Murphy said Miller's family was from Ohio, but "Miller being a common name, if you look up all of the Millers in Ohio, you're talking about thousands and thousands." Also, he couldn't be sure that the family hadn't moved during the intervening 34 years.
   Murphy and his wife got on the Internet. "We had gone to all of these different Web sites, but Barbara, about two months ago, went to The Wall, and under his name where you could leave notes, was a note from a guy who was in the Marine Corps that knew him from high school and knew the family."
   Barbara e-mailed the man without telling her husband because she didn't want to get his hopes up, and he sent back the phone number of the parents.
   "That was about 10 o'clock at night. I marched right to the telephone and called them. I told them the true story and got them in touch with other people who were there," who also knew their son.
   "I was going to pursue getting him the Medal of Honor, but I have to go with the wishes of the family. He's not here to receive it, and the family [said] they've already got a drawerful of medals and they really don't want to go through all of that," he said.
   Murphy did make up a ribbon bar and obtained one of the medals Miller was eligible for and sent it to the family. "Over the mantle of the fireplace, they've got his helmet cover that he had sent home, and they've got like a little shrine built, so I figured maybe they'd appreciate something like this," he said. "They had been struggling through the years to find the truth and to find somebody. It's given them the closure they needed."