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Veterans' Voices: When To Fight And When Not To Fight

Tom and Jean McMurtry
Tom and Jean McMurtry

Success in combat requires an ability to know when to fight and when not to. Army veteran Tom McMurtry from Clayton, told his wife, Jean, about a life-saving lesson he learned while in the service.


Jean McMurtry:Can you tell me about your best day when you were in the war?

Tom McMurtry: Well, let me say about the worst day first, because they were really connected. So, the worst day was when there was a series of reasonable military decisions made by reasonable men that ended up getting some civilians killed that shouldn't have died. My job, since I was in no part of that chain of command, or this chain of decisions, my job was to show up the next morning with my little team and do an eyes-on battlefield damage assessment of this terrorist target. We show up there and it’s just a farmer's house, it's just these farmers. I'm in the bedroom and I'm standing in a puddle of these children's blood and out the window is the coffin being nailed together, you know, for their father with the grave diggers working on the hillside. And I'm explaining why the Americans have done this, and how it was not our fault. That was a hard day.

The best day was when I saw the same series of reasonable military decisions going exactly the same way, and I was able to stop it! We were on a routine military patrol in the open area west of Fallujah and I run into a group of engineers who've been in country like maybe two weeks. Anyway, they had one particular truck that was stuck. I mean, it was way stuck. It had come off the soft earth embankment of one of the irrigation canals, and was just in it, you know. The truck was going nowhere. So, in a bit of a panic, they said, “Well, we can’t leave the truck. We can't move the truck. We’re stuck with this stuck truck.” And at the same time then there's gunfire that comes, you know, these tracers just streaking over their heads! I'm with the local guys and none of them flinch and they say, “Oh, it’s a wedding. It’s that little group just right over there, just on the other side of those trees, they’re having a wedding.” I say, “Oh okay.” So, I go over there and these guys, the engineers, are down, they’re in the fighting position, they've already called for the QRF, the Quick Response Force, to come screaming in. They've called for an airstrike; we are being attacked. And I'm walking down the road saying, “Hi, guys.” And they’re yelling, “Get down! Get down! We're being attacked!” So, I get down with the lieutenant and I say there's a wedding. He says, “No, these bullets went right over our head.” I said, “Did any of them strike the ground in front of you, or near you? Did any of them come across the earth trying to kill you?” They said, “No, they all went overhead.” I said, “Yes. It's celebratory gunfire. There's a wedding. These guys, you know, shoot guns in the air to celebrate things. It's on the other side of the trees. It's a wedding. They didn’t believe it. “Okay, here's the deal. We'll sit here, you and me, and if you're attacked, I'll put all of my rifles and all of my machines into your fight, every one of them. We will stay here till it's done. I will not abandon you, we are in your fight. But if nothing happens in fifteen minutes, I need you to cancel all that stuff and not kill any of these people in this wedding. And that was okay with them. And we sat there for several minutes and he got back on the radio and he canceled the ground assault and the air strike.

And my very best day was when nothing happened. 

Tom and Jean McMurtry's conversation took place at WYSO as part of StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative which visited the Miami Valley last summer. Veterans’ Voices on WYSO is presented by Wright-Patt Credit Union with additional support from CareSource. This story was edited by David Seitz and Will Davis and created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.       

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

David Seitz
Will Davis