Honor, Courage and Commitment

I read this article last week, and at first it didn’t occur to me why I was so drawn to it, then I read it again.  Only focusing on the superficial, it made sense that the article attracted my attention for the following reasons:

  1. My stepfather works at Bath Iron Works, where the USS MICHAEL MURPHY (DDG 112) is being built.
  2. The USS MICHAEL MURPHY is an Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer named after a Medal of Honor recipient, just like the USS BENFOLD, the only US ship I have been underway with outside of US waters. (Click here to see an official US Navy photo of me on board USS BENFOLD-note the photo of HM3 Benfold just over my head-and click here to read his Medal of Honor citation)
  3. Most significantly, I personally know CDR Chad Muse, Commanding Officer of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE, who is quoted at the end of the article.

Yes, this article definitely deserved a third reading.  It was during that third time through that the significance of what LT Murphy had done finally struck me.

On June 28, 2005, the day he was killed, Murphy was leading a SEAL team in northeastern Afghanistan looking for the commander of a group of insurgents known as the Mountain Tigers.

The Operation Red Wings reconnaissance team rappelled down from a helicopter at night and climbed through rain to a spot 10,000 feet high overlooking a village to keep a lookout. But the mission was compromised the following morning when three local goat herders happened upon their hiding spot.

High in the Hindu Kush mountains, Murphy and Petty Officers Marcus Luttrell of Huntsville, Texas; Matthew Axelson of Cupertino, Calif.; and Danny Dietz of Littleton, Colo.; held a tense discussion of the rules of engagement and the fate of the three goat herders, who were being held at gunpoint.

If they were Taliban sympathizers, then letting the herders go would allow them to alert the Taliban forces lurking in the area; killing them might ensure the team’s safety, but there were issues of possible military charges and a media backlash, according to Luttrell, the lone survivor.

Murphy, who favored letting the goat herders go, guided a discussion of military, political, safety and moral implications. A majority agreed with him.

An hour after the herders were released, more than 100 Taliban armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades opened fire, attacking from higher elevation, and maneuvering to outflank the SEALs, said Gary Williams, author of “Seal of Honor,” a biography of Murphy.

What is not mentioned above is that one of the goat herders was only 14 years old.  It is easy for us, in hindsight, to ask questions like “Why didn’t they just tie them up?”  Clearly that wasn’t an option for these highly trained men, or obviously they would have done it.  They only had two choices: kill these non-combatants, one of whom was a child, or let them go, knowing this could ultimately lead to their own death.

That’s where honor, courage and commitment, the core values of the United States Navy, came into play.

Honor: “I will bear true faith and allegiance …” Accordingly, we will: Conduct ourselves in the highest ethical manner in all relationships with peers, superiors and subordinates; Be honest and truthful in our dealings with each other, and with those outside the Navy; Be willing to make honest recommendations and accept those of junior personnel; Encourage new ideas and deliver the bad news, even when it is unpopular; Abide by an uncompromising code of integrity, taking responsibility for our actions and keeping our word; Fulfill or exceed our legal and ethical responsibilities in our public and personal lives twenty-four hours a day. Illegal or improper behavior or even the appearance of such behavior will not be tolerated. We are accountable for our professional and personal behavior. We will be mindful of the privilege to serve our fellow Americans.

Courage: “I will support and defend …” Accordingly, we will have: courage to meet the demands of our profession and the mission when it is hazardous, demanding, or otherwise difficult; Make decisions in the best interest of the navy and the nation, without regard to personal consequences; Meet these challenges while adhering to a higher standard of personal conduct and decency; Be loyal to our nation, ensuring the resources entrusted to us are used in an honest, careful, and efficient way. Courage is the value that gives us the moral and mental strength to do what is right, even in the face of personal or professional adversity.

Commitment: “I will obey the orders …” Accordingly, we will: Demand respect up and down the chain of command; Care for the safety, professional, personal and spiritual well-being of our people; Show respect toward all people without regard to race, religion, or gender; Treat each individual with human dignity; Be committed to positive change and constant improvement; Exhibit the highest degree of moral character, technical excellence, quality and competence in what we have been trained to do. The day-to-day duty of every Navy man and woman is to work together as a team to improve the quality of our work, our people and ourselves.

In choosing to let the goat herders go, LT Murphy upheld the Navy core value of Honor by fulfilling his legal and ethical responsibilities with respect to non-combatants.  He upheld the Navy core value of Courage by choosing what was in the best interest of the nation without regard to personal consequences.  He upheld the Navy core value of Commitment by treating those non-combatants with human dignity and exhibiting the highest degree of moral character.

Although LT Murphy’s Medal of Honor citation was ultimately written to reflect his actions against the combatants the team eventually encountered, I think his greatest gift to us is the Honor, Courage and Commitment he displayed before he ever fired a shot.

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