Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy was an avid defender of others — a trait that likely led him to join the Navy and become one of the service’s elite SEALs. In Afghanistan, he gave his life to save his team members from an overwhelming force. That sacrifice made him the first sailor since Vietnam to earn the Medal of Honor, and it inspired a Memorial Day challenge that’s really caught on.
Murphy was born May 7, 1976, in Smithtown, New York. When he was still very young, his parents, Dan and Maureen, moved him and his brother, John, to Patchogue on Long Island. Murphy was good at sports, and he began sticking up for others at an early age — his family said he got into a fight at school while defending a student with disabilities.
After graduating from Patchogue-Medford High School in 1994, Murphy went to Penn State University. He played ice hockey while there and lifeguarded during the summers. In 1998, he graduated with honors with two degrees, one in political science and one in psychology.
Murphy was accepted into a few law schools, but he decided on a different path — he wanted to become a Navy SEAL. He took mentoring sessions at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, before being accepted into Officer Candidate School in September 2000. He was commissioned into the Navy that December.
By July 2002, Murphy had earned his trident, making it through all the courses required to become a SEAL. He deployed for the first time to Jordan in October 2002, followed by more deployments to Qatar and Djibouti.
In early 2005, Murphy was assigned as the assistant officer in charge of Alfa Platoon, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1. They soon deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
On June 27, 2005, Murphy took part in Operation Red Wings as the leader of a special reconnaissance team. Their mission: to locate Ahmad Shah, a high-level anti-coalition militia leader in the Hindu Kush mountain range east of Asadabad. With him were three fellow SEALs: Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson and Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell.
The following day, the four men were in a rugged, enemy-controlled area high in the mountains when they came across three goat herders, who they questioned and let go. It’s believed that those men sympathized with the enemy and reported the Americans to the Taliban. As a result, up to 40 enemy fighters swarmed the steep face of the mountain where Murphy and his team were located, and a massive firefight ensued.
All four SEALs were injured quickly, but they refused to give up the fight. Ignoring his own wounds, Murphy encouraged his men to stay strong and began calling for help to get them out of there. His calls weren’t going through, though, likely because of the remote terrain. So, Murphy fought his way toward open territory to find a better position to transmit a call.
Despite taking on direct enemy fire, Murphy managed to get in touch with backup forces to give them their location and ask for immediate support. At one point during the call, he was shot in the back and dropped the transmitter. But he picked it back up, finished the call and fired back at the enemy. Despite severe wounds, he then made his way back to cover with the other men.
In response to his rescue call, a MH-47 Chinook helicopter with eight more SEALs and eight Army special operators was sent in to extract the four men. However, as it got closer to the fight, it was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, killing all 16 men onboard.
Back on the ground, Murphy and the others continued to fight. Over the span of two hours, the men battled the incoming enemy across hills and over cliffs. Eventually, though, Murphy, Dietz and Axelson were killed.
A rocket-propelled grenade blasted Luttrell over a ridge and knocked him out. When he woke up, the seriously injured SEAL was able to evade the enemy and find some sympathetic locals who hid him in a nearby village for days. On July 2, 2005, U.S. forces were able to rescue him — all thanks to that call Murphy made.
The remains of Murphy, Dietz and Axelson were also recovered. Murphy is buried in Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York, less than 20 minutes from his childhood home.
The 2005 firefight was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II. The only solace that might have been gained from it was that, during the battle, the four men on the ground took out about 35 Taliban fighters.
For Murphy’s selfless leadership and courage, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His parents received it from President George W. Bush during a White House ceremony on Oct. 22, 2007. Murphy was the first person to fight in Afghanistan to be awarded the nation’s highest honor for valor.
Luttrell later said of his compatriot, “Mikey was the best officer I ever knew, an iron-souled warrior of colossal and almost unbelievable courage in the face of the enemy.”
Murphy has been memorialized in many ways since the story of their ordeal was first told. Over the years, a crossfit-style workout became a popular challenge among fitness buffs to do on Memorial Day to honor fallen service members. It’s now known as “The Murph” in honor of Murphy, and it supports the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation.
The guided missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy was commissioned in 2012 in his honor.
Luttrell also wrote a book about their ordeal, called “Lone Survivor,” which was made into a movie that found box office success. Actor Taylor Kitsch played Murphy, while Mark Wahlberg played Luttrell.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.