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Taking the Hill: From Philly to Baghdad to the United States Congress

Taking the Hill: From Philly to Baghdad to the United States Congress

by Patrick J. Murphy

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A moving and inspiring memoir from the first Iraq war veteran to be elected to the United States Congress

Congressman Patrick J. Murphy, the Irish American son of a Philadelphia policeman and a former nun who raised their family in a tough-but-loving blue-collar neighborhood, grew out of a scrappy childhood to become a community college student and


A moving and inspiring memoir from the first Iraq war veteran to be elected to the United States Congress

Congressman Patrick J. Murphy, the Irish American son of a Philadelphia policeman and a former nun who raised their family in a tough-but-loving blue-collar neighborhood, grew out of a scrappy childhood to become a community college student and then—quickly—army officer, lawyer, and the youngest professor at West Point. He served in Iraq as a captain in the elite 82nd Airborne "All-Americans" where he earned a Bronze Star for service, and successfully prosecuted one of Muqtada al-Sadr's top lieutenants. Returning from Iraq with a determination to help change the direction of this country, Murphy, a political novice, ran an inspirational grassroots campaign against a popular Republican incumbent while being outspent by more than $2 million.

Told with passion and candor, Taking the Hill is a powerful and moving tale of love for family and the belief that the American dream is still within reach. More than anything, Murphy's life demonstrates the joys and necessity of serving others, whether that means one's family or students, community or fellow soldiers, or one's nation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Murphy, a first-term representative from Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District, recounts the story of his unlikely political journey in this partisan autobiography. Born to a policeman and a legal secretary in 1973 Philadelphia, Murphy's early life was unexceptional. After meeting President Clinton in 1996-"a defining moment in my life"-Murphy graduated from Pennsylvania's King's College and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the army. He attended the Widener University School of Law before joining the army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. As an army lawyer, he served at West Point and was deployed to Bosnia before joining the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq and led a Brigade Operational Law Team (BOLT) for seven months. After leaving the army, he challenged Republican Rep, Mike Fitzpatrick-"a rubber stamp for George Bush on Iraq"-in the 2006 congressional election. A staunch critic of the Iraq War, Murphy won a narrow victory and now serves "on the front lines in Washington" at "a defining moment in our history." Short on self-awareness and long on hyperbole, Murphy's narrative fails to rise above conventional campaign biography. (Feb. 19)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress turns out to be an intelligent observer who hated what he saw and decided to do something about it. Raised in a blue-collar Philadelphia family, Murphy pulled himself together after a misspent youth, joined the Army ROTC, attended Widener University School of Law and became the youngest professor at West Point. Teaching law to senior cadets, he stressed that no American is too powerful to be above the law-or to decide that someone else doesn't deserve its protection. As examples, he maintains that both the army's "don't ask, don't tell" rule on homosexuality and the Bush administration's policy of denying prisoners protection under the Geneva Convention fall below American standards of justice. Despite his position in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Murphy was a gung-ho soldier who underwent paratrooper training and joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Transferring to Iraq in 2003, he witnessed the chaos that ensued when the United States destroyed the infrastructure, dismissed Saddam Hussein's officials and disbanded his army. Readers will share Murphy's amazement at discovering the absence of a plan for following up the victory. There were far too few soldiers in the occupying force, and they were disgracefully ill-equipped for fighting an insurgency. Billions in reconstruction money, dispensed by American contractors to Iraqi subcontractors, vanished without a trace. Writing about the 82nd Airborne, the author has nothing but praise for its members, who sacrificed and sometimes died to bring security and honest government to their area despite clueless civilian superiors. He left the service, returned home and, in 2005, decided to runfor Congress as a critic of the war. The book's final third delivers a nuts-and-bolts account of his campaign, an uphill struggle in a conservative district against a ruthless, well-financed incumbent. A unique attack on the war by an author who comes across as a genuine idealist.
From the Publisher
“From Bosnia to Baghdad to the Kerry campaign and Murphy family’s dinner table in the working neighborhoods of Pennsylvania, the pages of Taking the Hill overflow with hair-raising adventures, thoughtful observations, and a story of service, sacrifice, and good old fashioned courage. Accomplished as a professor, paratrooper, and now a public servant—Patrick Murphy is an American original with a voice we’ll be hearing for decades to come.”—John Kerry

“Taking the Hill shows us why Patrick Murphy is one of the brightest stars in the next generation of American leaders. With characteristic passion and candor, Murphy gives us a powerful indictment of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq. And his inspiring life's story offers hope to all who have the courage and determination to reach for the American Dream.”—Barack Obama

"Political observers have buzzed about Patrick Murphy as the only member of Congress to have served in Iraq. Yet in these pages, he thinks of himself as the son of a cop and legal secretary whose best friend works for Budweiser. And therein lies the lesson he offers in this account of his meteoric political rise. This is a story of humility, honesty, and honor which will serve the politician and non-politician well."—Michael Smerconish, radio host, columnist and author

"A magnificent journey of conscience, hope, courage, and American spirit…and a blisteringly great and unusually fun read. In these days of raw cynicism toward politicians, Patrick Murphy's route from blue collar Philadelphia, to the trenches of Baghdad, to the halls of Congress, is a needed reminder that some politicians are forged by fire, principle, and ideals."—Brian Haig, author of Man in the Middle

“My hero Winston Churchill said that "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others." Congressman Murphy, a soldier-politician of this new century, is the living proof of that. As a Philadelphia guy myself, I take great pride in Pat Murphy and got a wild kick reading about his exciting young life. Like him I grew up in Northeast Philly and spent so much of my time in nearby Bucks County. I can't believe how much this young fellow has done - lawyer, prosecutor, paratrooper, national legislator. This guy was born airborne.”—Chris Matthews, Host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews and NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show

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Chapter 1

It was after midnight on my first day in Baghdad when I was ordered to report to the office of Colonel Arnold Bray, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division. For the next forty-five minutes, this tough 6'4" African-American warrior with two decades in the military—a man responsible for 3,500 paratroopers—described what I would face as the 2nd Brigade’s judge advocate general (JAG) leading a Brigade Operational Law Team (BOLT). He was damn proud of what the six-member BOLT team was already achieving, but knew that there was a tough road ahead—and he had high expectations of our team, our mission, and me.

“Make no mistake, what you and your team will do—or not do—to win the hearts and minds of these Iraqis will save our paratroopers’ lives,” he told me. “Get out there, be aggressive, go after it.” He described Captain Koby Langley, whom I was replacing, and praised his accomplishments in establishing a legal claims framework and cultivating relationships with Iraqis at the two courthouses in Al Rashid, Baghdad’s largest and poorest district, where we were based. “You need to take this team even further.”

As I listened, I couldn’t help noticing the heavy bags under his eyes. Like most paratroopers, he was visibly sleep-deprived; three other paratroopers went into his office after me that night, each for an extensive meeting. I was still getting acclimated to the time zone and our spartan accommodations, and no matter how much caffeine I pumped into my bloodstream, I struggled to keep my eyes open that night. Our duty day would be eighteen hours every day. For officers, it was bad form to get more than five hours of sleep per night. Any less would lead to dementia, and substantially reduced reaction time.

My education continued at the 7:00 a.m. battle update brief the next morning. These briefings—updating us on combat operations in our sector the night before and what was going on in the neighboring sectors throughout Baghdad—were the glue that held our brigade senior staff together. Our intelligence officer told of a taxicab driver who had been taken into custody after trying unsuccessfully to fire a rocket-propelled grenade into an Iraqi police station. When questioned about it, the driver admitted that he had been paid to carry out his crime—two hundred Iraqi dinar, the Iraqi currency, still imprinted with the head of Saddam Hussein. The lives of Iraqi police officers—and the stability of Iraq—were being threatened for the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar.

That afternoon, a man showed up at the front gate of our forward-operating base (FOB), located just off Highway 8, a six-lane concrete-and-dirt highway known in our sector of south central Baghdad as Ambush Alley. Shouting that we had killed his nephew, he demanded to see Colonel Bray. His voice was rising, agitating the crowd of over fifty Iraqis at the gate, who had already been standing in the hot sun for hours and were becoming unruly.

The guards called for an interpreter, and Captain Langley and I walked outside the gate, carrying our M4s and dressed in our battle-rattle: Kevlar helmet and Interceptor body armor (IBA) vests. We identified the man and walked him back into the compound, under the watchful eye of the gunner on our roof. As we pushed our way back through the throng, we could hear cries of desperation in broken English: “Where is water?”; “Why no lights?”; “I thought you great Americans?”

I was puzzled. Why was this crowd of Iraqis standing here baking in the summer sun? What were they asking us for? Wasn’t there someplace we could send them? Weren’t we just in charge of security and combat operations?

There were no good answers. All we knew was that humanitarian organizations were in full retreat due to the escalating violence, and Jay Garner, the leader of the so-called interim government, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, had just been fired. Thirteen weeks after our invasion and military commanders were left holding the bag, scrambling to create a mini Marshall Plan in the absence of support and direction from Washington and the Green Zone. The growing numbers of disgruntled Iraqis shaking the gates of every forward operating base in Iraq became a tactical nightmare. We were losing the battle for hearts and minds. An entire postwar reconstruction system had to be built from scratch—immediately.

I glanced up to the roof, eyeing the gunner, who was steadily scanning the crowd for signs of insurgent activity, and wondered, What the hell is going on here? These were trained combat paratroopers—the finest in the army. They had fought their way into the heart of Baghdad, and achieved one of the most stunning military victories in the history of warfare. And now they were being used to guard a base against civilians desperate for food, water, and some semblance of normalcy.

As we escorted the Iraqi into our compound, Captain Langley looked over at me. He must have recognized the look of incomprehension in my eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you’re a paratrooper. Remember: Impossible is our regular workday.” I would later tell my team that we could spend our time in Iraq hiding from the reality, and the seeming impossibility of the situation, or we could spend it trying our Airborne best to make a difference. “They are going to give you some medal when you get back from this war,” I’d tell them. “Just make sure you earn it.”

When we got inside the compound, the Iraqi told us his story. Apparently, several nights earlier, the 82nd Airborne had conducted a cordon and search in an area where our intelligence indicated insurgents were living or operating. In that type of operation, U.S. forces cordon off a city block or two from pedestrians and vehicles, make a bullhorn announcement in Arabic that everyone should stay indoors, and proceed to search buildings in the restricted area for weapons, hostages, or suspected insurgents.

On the night in question, paratroopers planted themselves on rooftops, scoping out possible threats in the cordoned-off zone. Suddenly, one of them noticed an Iraqi male carrying a machine gun emerge onto a rooftop several houses away on the other side of the street. The Iraqi’s head turned as he appeared to gaze down to where other paratroopers were entering the building below him. Even with night-vision goggles, it was hard to gauge from across the street what the Iraqi was doing with the weapon, but it appeared he was focusing his aim on our soldiers, preparing to fire.

The paratroopers got on their radios: “Potential target ten o’clock at southern rooftop!” “Potential engagement of friendlies.” “Confirm weapon?” asked a paratrooper, not knowing how long he had before the Iraqi took his shot. The squad leader answered immediately from a nearby location, “Weapon confirmed.” “Take out the hostile,” someone shouted over the radio. Shots rang out from an M4. The Iraqi fell to the ground.

Within seconds, paratroopers rushed into the building and climbed the back staircase. Meanwhile, another Iraqi man appeared on the rooftop, retrieved the weapon our paratroopers had seen and vanished back into the building. When our troops raced inside a few moments later, the Airborne medic reported over the radio that the fallen Iraqi was a twelve-year-old boy, whose mother was now holding him in her arms, shouting in Arabic. The mother was hysterical, tears streaming down as she wailed, anguish on her face. She refused to let the medic treat her son, clutching his lifeless body to her chest and rocking back and forth. Finally she relented, and the nineteen-year-old medic checked the boy’s vital signs. He was dead.

The boy’s name, we learned, was Mohammed al-Kubaisi. The man who came to our base was his uncle. Colonel Bray is an old-school warrior, but at that meeting he spoke not as a soldier or paratrooper, but as a father. He took off his Kevlar helmet and sat with the boy’s uncle on our ragged office couch. “I have a son of my own,” he told him. “I know my words ring hollow, but please know that we all grieve for your loss.” Colonel Bray placed his hand on his IBA vest right over his heart, patting it as he spoke to convey his sympathy. His words were translated for the uncle, and the pain on his face eased ever so slightly.

Colonel Bray knew his paratroopers were acting in self-defense in the dead of night, eight thousand miles from home. He was not going to second-guess them. Neither was I. When Mohammed’s uncle first came to talk with us, he claimed that the killing was unnecessary because Mohammed had not been carrying a weapon. Later, he conceded that Mohammed had been carrying a weapon, but explained that the boy had only been trying to hide it—not fire it at U.S. troops. Perhaps this is true. But given the imperfect knowledge that the paratroopers had that night, our troops made the only decision they could have under our rules of engagement and international law; they have an inherent right of self-defense, and they perceived an imminent and hostile threat. In war, even the best judgment often has terrible consequences.

The whole case left me with a profound unease. It reminded me of the words spoken by Israeli prime minister Golda Meir: that when peace finally comes, it will be easier to forgive our enemies for killing our sons and daughters than it will be to forgive them for making us kill theirs. When Mohammed’s uncle left our office, I felt—as I am sure my fellow soldiers felt—that we had just made our own mission in Iraq more difficult.

When Vivienne Walt, a Boston Globe reporter, caught up with the al-Kubaisi tribal leader (called a sheikh) a few months later, the sheikh told her that Mohammed’s family had still not received payment from the U.S. government for their loss and was considering retaliation.

“If they don’t pay our settlement, we’ll kill four of them,” he said, sitting in his office near the Tigris River. “The Americans are like a tribe for us.”

Back then, most Iraqis would probably have disagreed with this sheikh and opposed attacks on American forces. Now, the majority of Iraqis believe it’s acceptable to kill Americans.

I had come face-to-face with the deadly reality of the poorly planned Bush war. It was a cruel twist on the Pottery Barn rule General Colin Powell had invoked: The Bush administration broke it, but it was the soldiers on the ground who had to pay the price—picking up the pieces, the shambles, of the president’s failed plan.

I forced this thought from my head. I was only a captain, and I was here to complete my mission and lead my team, no matter what. But I later learned that nearly every officer worth his or her salt in southern Baghdad felt the same way the day they set foot in Iraq. You did not need to be a brigade commander or a general to be aware of the hornet’s nest we had stirred up. It was a horrible feeling, like being strapped beneath a slowly dropping pendulum ax, seeing death in front of you, steadily creeping closer, and unable to move to the left or right.

But we had signed an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We were there to fight, and we wouldn’t back down, even in the face of impossible odds. It was that warrior spirit, epitomized in every paratrooper I served with, that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were no doubt relying on when they left the multibillion-dollar reconstruction plans on the cutting room floor—too expensive, they thought, and not sellable to the American public.

It has cost far more now.

When I returned from Iraq in January 2004, I knew we needed a change of course. In time, I realized the best way that I could help bring about that change was to run for Congress. Two years later, I became the first Iraq War veteran to serve in our nation’s capital. The district I represent, the Eighth Congressional District of Pennsylvania, includes the neighborhood in Northeast Philly where I grew up, a kid who took fist fights more seriously than schoolwork. It was in that neighborhood that I learned the values—service, honor, family—that I carried with me as a law professor at West Point, as a captain in the 82nd Airborne, and today, as a U.S. congressman.

That is my story. And this is how it happened. This is how I took the hill.

Copyright © 2008 by Patrick J. Murphy. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Congressman Patrick J. Murphy represents Pennsylvania's Eighth District. He lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife, Jenni, and daughter, Maggie.

Congressman Patrick J. Murphy represents Pennsylvania’s Eighth District. He lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife, Jenni, and daughter, Maggie.

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