National Park Service presenting John Murtha with photos of Lemon House and South Fork Dam, c. 1970s.
Murtha was a longtime senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and served as either chair or ranking member of the Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations for more than 20 years. During his tenure in Congress, and because of his own military service experiences, he was known as a hands-on chairman who enjoyed meeting with individual servicemen and women and their families firsthand to address their concerns. One of his most significant accomplishments was a total revamping of the military medical health care system which greatly improved delivery of medical care to the military. Murtha always put the individual serviceperson first and ensured that he or she was cared for, trained, equipped, and ready. Other significant accomplishments during his tenure included the procurement of fast sealift that proved instrumental in deploying unit equipment from the United States during the Gulf War and maintaining critical aspects of the defense industrial base during a period of greatly reduced defense spending during the 1990s. He was also able to greatly expand military medical research for diseases such as breast and prostate cancer as well as improvements in pain management and wellness. Because of this, the Department of Defense’s preeminent Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was named in his honor.
Murtha was also a history buff and very active in preserving our nation’s historical landmarks. As a result, he obtained a seat on the Appropriations Interior Sub-committee and his Congressional district is replete with examples of his impact on the region such as the Johnstown Flood Museum, the reconstruction of Fort Necessity in Fayette County, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and the Great Allegheny Passage and Trail to name but a few. He was also active in the preservation of historical landmarks outside the district and was the prime mover in Congress for the construction of the new Visitor’s Center at Gettysburg and the restoration of the battlefield to its original state in time for its 150th anniversary. He did not confine himself to just those historical important sights in the United States. During his travels he had the opportunity to visit the American cemetery in Normandy, France. As a result of the visit and at the request of those responsible for the cemetery, he sponsored the funding for the construction of a new visitors/interpretive center at the Cemetery so future generations would understand the magnitude of the effort that led to the freedom of Europe in World War II.
In his book, From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security, Murtha writes of his many excursions to various regions of the world in the interest of the security of the United States. His travels include his participation in Congressional delegations to the Soviet Union, Lebanon, and Vietnam as well as the Philippines, El Salvador, Panama, and Bosnia to monitor democratic elections. Murtha took numerous other trips over the years to inspect and visit with United States military troops stationed overseas.
Arguably the most impactful decision Murtha was to support the troops was during the War in Iraq. While initially supportive of the decision to deploy troops to the Middle East, he changed his stance as the illegitimacy of the United States’ involvement quickly unfolded. With a history of working effectively behind the scenes, Murtha resolved to place himself in the spotlight in order to remove soldiers from further harm. At a press conference on November 17, 2005, he made a call for the redeployment of United States troops from the Iraqi conflict, for both the long-term benefit of the United States and of Iraq. He was met with both praise and opposition from people in America and abroad and this is reflected in 16 boxes of letters in the Archive. Two of these letters were kept in his personal desk, for they contained the Purple Hearts of the late spouse and relative of two of the correspondents.