Army Vet to Challenge House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha

A career Army member left the service two years short of retirement to move here and try his hand at politics by challenging longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha.

First-time candidate William T. Russell, 45, a Republican, acknowledged that taking on a popular, 18-term congressman in the 2008 election will be "an uphill battle."

"But it's one that must be fought," Russell told the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown.

Russell plans to formally announce his candidacy within weeks. Murtha has declined comment on the challenge.

Murtha, 75, has served in the House since 1974 and is known for bringing money and jobs — especially in the defense industries — to his district in rural Pennsylvania. A decorated Vietnam veteran and Marine Reserves colonel who previously had been hawkish on war issues, Murtha has criticized the Iraq war and pushed for the troops to be brought home. He became chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee last year.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey ran against Murtha last year, trying to capitalize on the backlash against Murtha's views among conservatives. She was soundly beaten in the general election.

Russell, who moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Murtha's district specifically to take on the congressman, has a long Army and Army Reserve career that includes tours of duty in the Balkans and both Iraq wars. He and his wife, Kasia, were in the Pentagon when a hijacked airliner slammed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001. Both escaped unhurt.

Murtha's call for troop withdrawal from Iraq "is just flat-out wrong," Russell said. Like Irey, Russell also criticized Murtha's public allegations that unnamed U.S. soldiers committed "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" against innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.

A small-business owner, Russell said he wants a local economy dependent on the free market. But he acknowledges some jobs may be lost if government contracts disappear.

It is not known whether Russell will have GOP challengers in the primary. Irey said she is focused on seeking re-election as commissioner.