The U.S. Navy names its ships and submarines after presidents and states of the union, admirals and senators, even species of fish and mountain ranges (USS Mesa Verde). But every once in a while a ship, usually a destroyer, is named after ordinary persons or people for displaying extraordinary courage and sacrifice.
One such ship was named this weekend, the USS Michael P Murphy. Murphy was a lieutenant and a Navy SEAL, just like the men who took out Usama bin Laden. He was also a posthumous Medal of Honor winner–“for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life,” as the official citation reads–and the first SEAL to have a ship named after him.
Michael Murphy earned his glory not through triumph, but failure–and by epitomizing a side of the Navy’s elite squad outsiders rarely think about or see.
Who was Michael Murphy? He was a native of Patochogue, New York and a dedicated New York Rangers fan, the handsome athlete and star student from Penn State who turned down offers to attend law school to join the SEALs instead.
He was also the finance of Heather Duggan, whom he planned to marry in November 2005.
The four-man team consisted of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer Matthew Axelson, Petty Officer Danny Dietz, and Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell–the one man who would later become the mission's sole survivor.
The morning after the team's arrival in Afghanistan the SEALs found themselves ambushed by scores of Taliban fighters -- they were trapped along a cliff face with a stream of gunfire pouring down from above.
Lieutenant Murphy was one of the first SEALs to be hit, with a stomach wound. But he fought side by side with Dietz and Axelson and Luttrell until he realized they would need outside help to escape. There was, however, no way to use his cell phone to call for back up unless he moved away from the cliff wall and out into the open–and into the hail of Taliban bullets.
And so, with the wounded members of his team at his side, Murphy calmly walked out to meet certain death to make the call. Marcus Luttrell saw him take a bullet in the back, with blood spurting from his chest, and heard his commanding officer’s last words on the phone: “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Then Murphy stood and staggered back, and still kept firing as one by one his team was killed. All, that is, except Luttrell who escaped death when a grenade blew him off the edge of the ridge and down the mountain--but not before he watched his commanding officer and friend die.
Luttrell would survive his wounds and a week in hiding and captivity before being picked up by an Army reconnaissance team. He would be there at Bagram Air Force base when the coffin containing the body of Michael Murphy was brought back down from the mountain. As he and the other SEALS, Rangers, and Green Berets saluted, Luttrell tells us in his book "Lone Survivor," he heard the words of a thousand memorial services:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.
Now, as we continue to celebrate the heroes of Team Six, we should also remember Lieutenant Michael P Murphy.
He tells us as much about the SEALs as they do–and much about the American warrior. Go through the list of Medal of Honor winners, Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force–it doesn’t matter. There are those who have earned that supreme honor by killing their enemies, and deservedly so. But most of the posthumous awards have gone to men who, above all, sacrificed their lives in order that others might live.
Remember Michael P. Murphy. Those who sail in the destroyer named after him will, and will remember that legacy of selfless sacrifice of Navy SEALs that makes protecting your buddies and bringing them home, as important a measure of valor as getting the mission done.
Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008)," His other books include the Mountbatten Prize–nominated "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005)," the New York Times bestseller "How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001)," and many articles on foreign and military policy. He is an AEI visiting scholar.
Historian Arthur Herman is author "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House (October 22, 2013).