HARRISBURG, Pa. – Rep. John Murtha, the tall, gruff-mannered former Marine who became the de facto voice of veterans on Capitol Hill and later an outspoken and influential critic of the Iraq War, died Monday. He was 77. The Pennsylvania Democrat had been suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. He died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said.
In 1974 Murtha, then an officer in the Marine Reserves, became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Ethical questions often shadowed his congressional service, but he was best known for being among Congress' most hawkish Democrats. He wielded considerable clout for two decades as the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending.
Murtha voted in 2002 to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq, but his growing frustration over the administration's handling of the war prompted him in November 2005 to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," he said.
Murtha's opposition to the Iraq war rattled Washington, where he enjoyed bipartisan respect for his work on military issues. On Capitol Hill, Murtha was seen as speaking for those in uniform when it came to military matters.
Murtha "was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress, and he was incredibly effective in his service in the House," said Rep. David Obey, a Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "He understood the misery of war. Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today."
Born June 17, 1932, John Patrick Murtha delivered newspapers and worked at a gas station before graduating from Ramsay High School in Mount Pleasant, Pa.
Military service was in his blood. He said his great-grandfather served in the Civil War, his father and three uncles in World War II, and his brothers in the Marine Corps. He left Washington and Jefferson College in 1952 to join the Marines, where he rose through the ranks to become a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., and later served in the 2nd Marine Division.
Murtha moved to Johnstown, at the center of what would become his congressional district, and remained with the Marine Reserves until he volunteered to go to Vietnam. He served as an intelligence officer there from 1966 to 1967 and received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
After his discharge from the Marines, Murtha ran a small business in Johnstown. He went to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill of rights, graduating in 1962 with a degree in economics.
He served in the Pennsylvania House in Harrisburg from 1969 until he was elected to Congress in a special election in 1974. In 1990, he retired from the Marine Reserves as a colonel.
"Ever since I was a young boy, I had two goals in life — I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress," Murtha wrote in his 2004 book, "From Vietnam to 9/11."
Murtha's criticism of the Iraq war intensified in 2006, when he accused Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" at Haditha, after one Marine died and two were wounded by a roadside bomb.
Critics said Murtha unfairly held the Marines responsible before an investigation was concluded and fueled enemy retaliation. He said that the war couldn't be won militarily and that such incidents dimmed the prospect for a political solution.
"This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people," Murtha said. "And we're set back every time something like this happens."
In 2008, the Republican Party used Murtha's words against him in TV ads aired less than a month before the election. The ads cited his criticism of the Haditha incident, as well as a comment about "racist" voting tendencies of many western Pennsylvania residents. Still, Murtha handily won his 18th full term.
Murtha was a perennial target of critics of so-called pay-to-play politics. He routinely drew the attention of ethical watchdogs with off-the-floor activities, from his entanglement in the Abscam corruption probe three decades ago to the more recent scrutiny of the connection between special-interest spending known as earmarks and the raising of cash for campaigns.
Murtha defended the practice of earmarking. The money, he said, benefited his constituents.
Murtha became chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in 1989. The same year Paul Magliocchetti, a former subcommittee staffer, left Capitol Hill to found the now-defunct PMA Group. The lobbying firm, which specialized in obtaining earmarks for defense contractors, was one Murtha's biggest sources of campaign cash.
In 2007 and 2008, Murtha and two fellow Democrats on the subcommittee directed $137 million to defense contractors who were paying PMA to get them government business. Between 1989 and 2009, Murtha collected more than $2.3 million in campaign contributions from PMA's lobbyists and corporate clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.
Shortly after the 2008 election, the FBI raided PMA's offices as part of a criminal investigation. In a separate development in January 2009, FBI agents raided the offices of a defense contractor from Murtha's district — Windber-based Kuchera Defense Systems Inc. — that had received millions of dollars in earmarks sponsored by Murtha while contributing tens of thousands to his campaigns.
A year later, Kuchera was suspended from bidding on government contracts because of allegations that it paid more than $200,000 in kickbacks to another defense contractor.
Around the same time, the House ethics committee was investigating the link between PMA-related campaign contributions and earmarks, but it had not named a subcommittee to look into possible violations by individual lawmakers.
Murtha's critics recall the Abscam corruption probe, in which the FBI caught him on videotape in a 1980 sting operation turning down a $50,000 bribe offer while holding out the possibility that he might take money in the future.
"We do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested and maybe I won't," Murtha said on the tape.
Six congressmen and one senator were convicted in that case. Murtha was not charged, but the government named him as an unindicted co-conspirator and he testified against two other congressmen.
Murtha's district encompasses all or part of nine counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and embodies the region's stereotypes of coal mines, steel mills and blue-collar values.
State Sen. Don White, an Army veteran and a Republican who represents a portion of Murtha's district, said he and Murtha were longtime friends, despite holding different political views and serving in different branches of the military.
"He made sure that Washington, D.C., knew where Johnstown, Indiana, Kittanning and a lot of other sites in western Pennsylvania were located," White said.
Constituents credited him with bringing jobs and health care to the region, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars for local industry, hospitals and tourism. Critics derisively nicknamed Murtha the "king of pork" and said he used his position on the defense subcommittee to win favors.
Murtha often delivered Democratic votes to Republican leaders in exchange for the funding of pet projects. He wasn't shy about such deals, once saying that "dealmaking is what Congress is all about."