Many constituents side with Murtha in opposition to war

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 19, 2005 

JOHNSTOWN, Pa.—They take war seriously at the American Legion Hall in downtown Johnstown, Pa.

If there's ever a place to find support for U.S. troops, it's here. But regulars at the post's dark corner bar applauded Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., for urging the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

Elsewhere in town, some raged at Murtha for turning on a war they still supported. "Crazy," said one constituent. "Traitor," said several callers to his district office.

But mostly people in Murtha's blue-collar, coal-and-steel country district in west Pennsylvania signaled weariness for the war. They endorse the man who has represented them since he became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress in 1974.

The support suggested that attacks on Murtha in Washington as a coward will gain no traction in his district. His continued political strength in the face of vicious Republican attacks could potentially embolden others to speak out against the war, though it's too early to know for sure.

The House voted 403-3 Friday night to reject an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Murtha voted against the measure too, after his earlier call to withdraw U.S. troops "at the earliest practicable date."

"I agree with him wholeheartedly," said Robert Bender, a World War II veteran and retired steel worker who serves as the adjutant of American Legion Post 294. "We shouldn't have been involved in the first place. Now that they have a Constitution, we should get out."

The blue-collar Democrats who live and work in the small towns of Murtha's district are culturally conservative. Like him, they're pro-gun and pro-life. And like him, they're proudly patriotic.

Except for a few Pittsburgh Steelers posters, the Legion Hall's dark-paneled walls are a billboard of support for the U.S. military. "Operation Desert Storm, U.S. military at its finest," says one poster. "9-11-01. We will never forget," says another.

"It's a conservative area. But we don't support this particular war," said Bender. "Most of the people around here are in accord with him on this," he added.

In Washington, some Republicans attacked Murtha. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Murtha and his party "want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world." Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, quoted a constituent who "asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Under fire, she later apologized for the remarks.

Her words didn't sit well in the Legion bar.

"We're proud of him. We don't like it when people attack him," said Barry Sirko of Johnstown, sipping a beer after his shift washing buses.

"We've lost more than 2000 troops so far. Murtha thinks the Iraqis should be fighting on their own. Murtha's right. It's gone on and on and on. They're all nuts over there and we should get out."

Asked whether Murtha was surrendering to terrorists, several patrons jumped in at once to say that the Iraq war was a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which they considered more important.

"We were supposed to be hunting terrorists. We dropped that to get into this war," said Bender.

"They should have kept going after bin Laden. What the heck are we doing in Iraq?" said Ray Telgarsky, a retired autoworker from Johnstown.

Even if they disagree, many of Murtha's constituents still like and respect him. They know his record in the Marines—Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry. And they know his clout in Congress has helped them weather the lost jobs in the mines and steel mills. Among the bounty he's brought home: the National Drug Intelligence Center and plants or offices set up by defense contractors including Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Kuchera Defense Systems and Concurrent Technologies Corp.

At Murtha's district office, calls, e-mails and faxes ran about 2-1 in support, though aides didn't know how many came from within the district. An unscientific poll taken by a local television station found about the same.

Some dissenters are angry.

"We have to stay until it's finished. We can't just leave the job undone," said David Gall, a retired contract officer from Windber, Pa. "I'm appalled at his attitude. I think he should be ousted from his position. He's gone a little crazy. He has no credibility now."

Gall, who served in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War, said Murtha's comments can only hurt the morale of troops now serving just as anti-war talk hurt him then. Even more, he said, because it comes from a senior member of Congress.

"I don't understand what's happening in this country any more."

Bill Weigle, executive director of the Cambria County Republican Party, also thought Murtha was dead wrong and that U.S. forces should not be withdrawn immediately. But he conceded that Murtha, who ran unopposed in his last election, will not be hurt at home by his new stand.

"I don't think it will help him. But it certainly won't defeat him. It will not affect him in the area," Weigle said. "They think highly of him around here."

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For more on Murtha, http://www.house.gov/murtha/

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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