It was just a few months earlier at a conference in Philadelphia that he’d seen President Obama, who pulled him aside and told Murphy he wanted to finish his final year in office strong. The president wanted Murphy on his team. The next day White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called about an opportunity at the Pentagon and in early March Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered him a top appointment as undersecretary of the Army.
The FBI was still vetting him on May 12, 2015, as he rode Amtrak train 188 home to Bucks County, Pa. to his wife, Jenni, and two young children. Because his commute was shorter from Trenton, he stayed on the train when it stopped in Philadelphia.
As the train pulled out of the Philly station, it began to shake, then tilt violently to one side and then the other. Murphy braced himself, gripping the table as other passengers were tossed from their seats.
“I remember thinking it was the end. It was pretty dramatic,” Murphy said. “I was just fighting to hold on.”
Then the train carrying 243 people derailed, its locomotive and front passenger cars slamming to the ground below. Everything went dark.
Murphy was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he immediately checked his arms and legs to see if they were still there. People were screaming. There was blood and debris, the air was hazy. The first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress, Murphy was back in what looked like a war zone. That’s when his military training kicked in.
“I did what any other soldier would do,” Murphy said. “Take control of the situation and be there for the person on your left and your right.”
An uncharted course
A year later on the anniversary of that crash, Murphy is in charge of the entire U.S. Army — acting as secretary while Obama’s nominee, Eric Fanning, waits in congressional confirmation purgatory. It’s a civilian post rarely held by a veteran, particularly one who had served so recently.
It’s a job he never envisioned, not in his wildest projections of his future. But then, that’s how Murphy’s entire professional life has gone.
Murphy, cherub-faced and blue-eyed, grew up in a scrappy Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, the son of a police officer and a legal secretary in a devout Irish Catholic home. As a kid he brawled in neighborhood street fights and did so poorly in school that he didn’t get into the one college he’d applied to. He could have joined other aimless friends in taking odd blue-collar jobs, but instead he enrolled in community college, determined to find a path. After a year there, he was accepted to Kings College, the small liberal arts school near Scranton where he’d originally wanted to go.
It was at Kings when he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), motivated by the monthly stipend. But soon, the army training proved to be exactly the sort of discipline and purpose he’d been seeking.
When he became an army cadet during a relatively peaceful time in the mid-1990s, he couldn’t have known that in less than a decade the United States would be in two devastating wars. Or that his deployment in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne would open his eyes to the indifference soldiers felt from their government, or that it would spur him to run for Congress as a Democrat with just $350 in his bank account. He couldn’t have foreseen that, at 33, he’d beat an incumbent Republican.
But then, after just two terms, he lost his seat in the 2010 in the so-called tea party wave election. Murphy’s subsequent run for state Attorney General was stymied by a Bill Clinton endorsement of his primary opponent. He dusted himself off and parlayed his rare mix of modern military experience and political knowledge into an MSNBC contributor gig that soon morphed into his own monthly Sunday series about veterans issues called, “Taking the Hill.”
“You have to ask yourself why are you on this certain path,” Murphy said in a recent interview. “No matter what happens you should be OK with the results. I used to say judgment day is more important than election day, and character is who you are when no one is looking. If you work hard and stay focused to make small and big decisions with the best intentions, things will work out.”
As a congressman, Murphy’s chief accomplishments were military-related. He led the push to repeal the 1990s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law that had allowed gay soldiers to serve if they kept their sexuality secret. He also authored a post-9/11 GI bill that provides higher-education benefits to veterans.
“He’s just one of those rare people who can go really deep on policy, as he has on making lives of veterans better. But he also has a huge heart and I think people can see that,” said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director. “There is something genuine about the questions he’s asking. He’s not going through the motions. That’s what I think is pretty unique about him.”
Psaki, who met Murphy in 2006 when she was working at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Murphy’s name had been bandied about in the Obama administration for years as the consummate public servant. Obama is passionate about encouraging people with “incredible potential” to stay in government, she said. So when the undersecretary job at the Army opened, Obama saw his chance to bring Murphy back.
A ‘soldier’s secretary’
Three days after Murphy was sworn into his new job, he stepped in as acting secretary while the Senate dragged its feet on Obama’s nominee.
The first thing he wanted to do was send an email introducing himself to the team. His assistant assumed he meant to people in their Pentagon office. No, he said, he meant the entire 1.3 million soldiers and civilians in the Army.
“We’re used to being risk adverse and he said he wanted to figure out how to talk to the army by sending an email to everyone in the army,” said Valerie Miller, Murphy’s chief of staff. “No one had ever done that before. We said, ‘No, the secretary shouldn’t…there’s a chain of command,’ and he said, ‘Nope, I want to do it.’ And he was totally right.”
When Murphy travels to army bases domestically or abroad, he wakes up early with the soldiers and does physical training, or PT, with them. He engages with them on their level because he is one of them, say those who work closest with him. He looks for small ways to improve their lives. He issued a rule that the people working in his office no longer have to wear their dress uniform to work because he knows how expensive they are to get dry cleaned, Miller said.
He authorized another change last week that allows soldiers to use earphones while in uniform when working out alone in the gym — something previously prohibited.
Jason Easom, a veteran and senior aide to Murphy, said soldiers tell him they love that Murphy is a “soldier’s secretary.” He engages with them. He’s active on social media pushing a positive image of the Army.
“People enjoy the genuineness behind him,” Easom said. “He does not look at a general or a private any differently. He treats them all with the same respect — every soldier is the same in his eyes. That’s what I respect the most.”
Another chance to serve
When Murphy realized he wasn’t going to die in the Amtrak crash, he stood up and looked around him at the disheveled, bloody passengers, some moaning in pain, others in panic. It was dark and dusty and the doors were too mangled to be opened. So he climbed on a seat and punched out the emergency window, the glass raining back down into the car.
He began attending to the victims of the crash, hoisting those able out of the car, applying pressure to wounds and comforting those too wounded to move. He wasn’t the only hero that night. He and others waited until the first responders came minutes later.
Jeff Sturdevant, who was returning home with a coworker to New Jersey from a business meeting in Philadelphia, was in the car with Murphy and unconscious when Murphy managed to wake him. A veteran like Murphy, Sturdevant’s training kicked in too. He climbed out of the car and put out a small brush fire just starting to form and returned to assist his injured coworker.
Murphy, who at that time was still employed by MSNBC, also tweeted photos of the wreckage that were used widely by news organizations.
It’s still unclear what caused the acceleration that led to the train’s derailment, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. Murphy walked away with just a few scrapes and bruises and a concussion. But in the days after as he obeyed a neurologist’s orders to rest, he considered his priorities. He’d already accepted Obama’s Pentagon offer, but it had meant walking away from a lucrative MSNBC contract.
Last year’s near-death experience cemented for him that it had been the right decision.
“I wanted to make sure I was living a purpose-filled life. The chance to go back and serve my brothers and sisters in uniform is something that I will never take for granted,” he said. “There were eight people killed (that night) and I walked away relatively unscathed. I am eternally grateful to be given another chance to serve my country and be a good father and husband to my family.”