HARRISBURG, Pa. - Rep. John Murtha, the gruff Marine who became a voice for veterans on Capitol Hill and later an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, died yesterday. He was 77.
The Pennsylvania Democrat had been suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. He died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., with his family at his bedside, the hospital 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. On Capitol Hill, he was seen as speaking for those in uniform when it came to military matters.
President Barack Obama called Murtha, who was known in his home state for helping bring money and projects to areas depressed by the decline of the coal and steel industries, "a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years" with a "tough-as-nails" reputation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a staunch supporter of Murtha's in Congress, recalled his service on the battlefield and in Washington. She noted that on Saturday, Murtha became the longest-serving member of Congress from Pennsylvania.
"He is well-recognized as a champion of our national security, always putting the troops and their families first," she said in a statement. "He quietly and regularly visited our men and women serving our country who were injured to assess their needs and offer them thanks and encouragement. As a proud Marine, he was always Semper Fi!"
Known for his seriousness, Murtha also had a lighter side. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell recalled yesterday that "he was a funny guy, he always enjoyed a good laugh and he was somebody who was a great and loyal friend." Rendell added that he has not decided when to schedule a special election to replace Murtha. He has 10 days by law.
Murtha was born June 17, 1932. The former newspaper delivery boy left college in 1952 to join the Marines. He became a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., and later served in the 2nd Marine Division. He settled in Johnstown, then went to Vietnam, where he served as an intelligence officer, earning a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
He was serving in the Pennsylvania House in Harrisburg when 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."
In Congress, Murtha was a perennial target of critics of so-called pay-to-play politics. He routinely drew the attention of ethical watchdogs - from the Abscam corruption probe three decades ago to the more recent scrutiny of links between earmarks and campaign fundraising. Six congressmen and one senator were convicted in the Abscam case. Murtha was not charged, but the government named him as an unindicted co-conspirator and he testified against two other congressmen.
He became chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in 1989.
Survivors include his wife of nearly 55 years, Joyce, and three children.