March 26,|by Christian Lowe In one of his last moves before leaving office March 13, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter quietly awarded 19-term Democratic congressman John Murtha (Pa.) with the service's highest civilian honor.
Citing Murtha's "courageous leadership, vision, and loyalty to the men and women of the Department of the Navy," Winter presented the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel with the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award, an honor bestowed in "those extraordinary cases where individuals have demonstrated exceptionally outstanding service of substantial and long term benefit to the Navy, Marine Corps, or the Department of the Navy as a whole," a Murtha release stated.
The award generated little publicity when it was given to Murtha in early March, but as news of the honor trickled out, some veterans groups ignited a firestorm of protest.
Poll: Should the Navy reconsider Murtha’s award
The primary reason for their ire stems from the congressman's statements in May, 2006, that a squad of Marines who responded to an IED ambush and short firefight in Haditha, Iraq, rampaged through the village, murdering civilians "in cold blood."
Murtha made those comments in the heat of the 2006 congressional mid-term election campaign, in a move some political analysts saw as an attempt to stoke the anti-war vote for a Democratic takeover of the House. The former Marine and distinguished Vietnam veteran continued his accusations in follow-up media appearances before an official Pentagon and Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation had been completed.
When the dust settled more than two years later, six of the eight Marines and Sailors accused of crimes in the Haditha incident had their cases dismissed, one was found not guilty and the last has been continued indefinitely.
The Navy did not respond to a request for comment on the award or the backlash from veterans groups by post time.
Murtha has refused to recant his accusations or apologize to the Marines he accused of war crimes. When asked by in late 2007 whether he regretted his initial statements and owed the exonerated Marines and Sailor an apology, Murtha refused to comment, saying the cases were still being adjudicated.
Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey did not respond to a request from for a comment on the award, or the controversy surrounding it among some vet groups.
In a release shortly after the award, Murtha gushed over the prestigious honor.
"I'm proud of the service and sacrifices our troops are making, and I'm honored to receive this distinguished award from the Navy," commented Murtha. "We have an obligation to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the most modern equipment, effective training, first-class medical care, and family advocacy resources."
But one influential veterans group has reacted strongly against the award, crafting a petition to lobby the Navy to rescind it.
Vets for Freedom, a group that generally supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, called Murtha's award "appalling" and his accusations against the Haditha Marines "vile and despicable."
"Congressman John Murtha should apologize for slandering the Marines of [3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment], and for undermining the efforts of those servicemen and women who fought in Iraq," the online petition states. "If he does not, the Secretary of the Navy should rescind this award as a sign of his unwavering support for those who served in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom."
So far more than 35,000 supporters have signed the online petition.
"It shows a lack of foresight from the Navy to not understand the long term effect of making Marines look like war criminals," said Vets for Freedom president Pete Hegseth, whose organization embraced the petition effort started by VFF Senior Fellow and former Marine Iraq vet Gabe Ledeen.
"I'd be surprised if the Navy stepped back and rescinded the award," Hegseth told "But there's a chance they could conduct an internal review to see how it was awarded and why."