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A family remembers their Medal of Honor recipient

  • Story Highlights
  • Long Island man wins nation's highest honor for valor
  • Medal of Honor recipient sends message to family beyond the grave
  • Medal of Honor recipients share similar traits
  • Nation now more ambivalent about war heroes
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By John Blake
CNN
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(CNN) -- Lt. Michael P. Murphy was leading a four-man Navy SEAL team behind enemy lines in a remote mountain range in Afghanistan when he realized he was in trouble.

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Lt. Michael P. Murphy liked to look out for the underdog, his family and friends said.

About 40 Taliban soldiers had quietly encircled his team, trapping them in an isolated area. The Taliban opened up on Murphy's men, causing them to tumble down the range where they frantically fired back while searching for an escape route.

Murphy's actions in the next minutes of the June 2005 battle would save another man's life and earn him the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. But Murphy himself died.

One man who takes comfort from Murphy's final act -- and a message Murphy sent from beyond the grave -- is his father, Dan Murphy, a Vietnam veteran. He will visit his son's Long Island, New York, grave on Memorial Day.

"He was my son, my compatriot, my friend, my child -- we shared and bridged all that together," he quietly says.

Heroes and friends

There was a time when a Medal of Honor recipient like Murphy would have been known by millions. The medal is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. Yet Americans have become more ambivalent about war heroes, says Peter Collier, author of "Medal of Honor," a book that profiles 138 Medal of Honor recipients. Photo See recent Medal of Honor recipients »

Collier says that Medal of Honor recipients like World War II hero Audie Murphy (no relation) were fixtures in the popular imagination. Murphy parlayed his wartime exploits into a Hollywood acting career. Sgt. Alvin York, another Medal of Honor recipient from World War I, was played by Gary Cooper in a celebrated film.

"They were like Michael Jordan," Collier says.

Vietnam changed that, he says. Soldiers were seen more as victims than warriors. They were depicted as baby-killers or pawns of a corrupt foreign policy. Even today, the media doesn't focus on the heroic exploits of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan but dwells instead on their problems, Collier says.

America is losing its appreciation for the men and women who belong to its "warrior culture," he says.

"They don't have any of these Hamlet-like moments of indecision about whether America is worth defending or a good country," he says of war heroes. "We need somebody in our culture that's ready to rock and roll, do or die, otherwise we're doomed."

Frederick Ferguson earned a Medal of Honor in Vietnam when he flew a helicopter in 1968 behind enemy lines to rescue a group of trapped American soldiers. He disdains any talk of being a hero, and keeps his medal in a dresser drawer.

He says Americans are more self-absorbed today. Few have served in the military. Ferguson says some would see his view of the world as archaic.

"I believe in this country and what it stands for," he says. "And there are evil people in this who will take all of this from us. If you're not strong, they'll smite you."

The families of some recent Medal of Honor recipients, though, don't talk about warrior virtues when they invoke memories of their sons or daughters. They say their sons and daughters did what they did to protect their friends.

Deb Dunham of Scio, New York, is the mother of Medal of Honor recipient Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham. She says her son extended his enlistment in Iraq because he wanted to bring all of the men he served with home alive.

In April 2004, Dunham was leading a patrol in an Iraqi town when an enemy fighter threw a grenade at his patrol. Dunham hurled himself on top of it, using his helmet to try to blunt the force of the blast. He saved the lives of two Marines standing nearby but he died eight days later.

His mother says she still gets letters, cards and calls from people four years later. Her family has established a scholarship fund in her son's honor.

"I quit counting the cards and letters when I reached a thousand," she says.

'DNA of courage'

Soldiers often say one cannot predict what soldiers will become heroes.

Collier, the author, says the "DNA of courage" is a mystery. There are common traits, though, that Murphy and Dunham shared.

Both were accomplished athletes who were competitive and valued teamwork. People were drawn to them. In high school, both stood up for students who were shunned.

Once, Murphy's high school principal called his parents at home after Murphy got into a scuffle with another student. The reason -- Murphy didn't want the student to pick on another student with a disability.

His father says his son didn't even like telling people he was a SEAL. Two-thirds never make it through the SEALs' rigorous training program, and Murphy didn't want to appear to brag.

"When he was growing up, we were never concerned about Michael getting out of a scrap -- he could take care of himself," Dan Murphy says. "We worried that he might put himself in danger for someone else."

That's what Murphy did on the night his team was ambushed. He was on a mission to find a senior Taliban leader. But after his team was discovered, Murphy had to take desperate action to save his men's lives, battle accounts say.

As his men fled from the Taliban, Murphy decided to make a radio call for help. But the radio signal was blocked by the rocky terrain. Disregarding his life, he moved into a clearing where he could make the call while receiving heavy fire.

President Bush described what happened next during a White House ceremony last year, where Murphy's parents were on hand to accept the Medal of Honor.

"Michael then fell under heavy fire. Yet his grace and upbringing never deserted him. Though severely wounded, he said 'thank you' before hanging up, and returned to the fight -- before losing his life."

Only one man from Michael's team, Marcus Luttrell, survived the battle. He wrote about Murphy's heroism in a book called "Lone Survivor."

"I doubt there was ever anyone better than Mikey," Luttrell wrote. "If they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won't ever be high enough for me."

Dan Murphy believes the American public treats its soldiers better than it once did.

"People have learned from the experience in Vietnam that you honor the warrior no matter how much you disagree with the war," he says. "You don't take it out on the men and women. They're just doing their job."

When asked if he supports the war in Iraq, Dan Murphy says, "No comment." He prefers to share his memories of his son: their long philosophical talks; his son's admiration for Abraham Lincoln; how much they loved to hang out together.

One memory, in particular, stands out.

The last time Dan saw his son alive was in March, 2005, when he and Michael's mother, Maureen, drove him to the airport. Maureen asked her son to text-message her when he arrived safely at his base in Hawaii.

The text message never came. Dan says he caught up with their son via phone later. Four months later, Michael was killed in Afghanistan. The family buried him on July 13 in a Long Island cemetery.

On the day of the burial, Dan says Maureen's cell phone beeped with a text message -- from their son, Michael. It was the message she hadn't received four months earlier when her son flew to Hawaii.

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Dan Murphy still chokes up years later when he recalls what the message said:

"Momma, don't worry. I'm home safe and sound."

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