PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – What if Clark had not volunteered to head west with Lewis? This question drives U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Murphy to head anywhere, do anything and volunteer for everything.
Murphy, a foreign area officer with Afghanistan Pakistan Hands, a counterinsurgency program designed to build partnerships with the local populace, has been to more than 50 countries and has served in Turkey, Israel, Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and others in a career spanning more than 20 years.
“I joined the Army in 1991,” said Murphy. “My father was a soldier, and it seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Murphy earned his commission through Loyola College, Md., and became an aviator for the Army, flying the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, helicopter for seven years and the AH-64 Apache helicopter for four years.
“I was in flight school with all these guys who spent their whole lives dreaming about flying, and me who had just kind of fell into it,” said Murphy. “I felt like Kramer on Seinfeld.”
Murphy, a history major, struggled with the intricacies of flight school.
“A lot of these guys where engineering majors, with very mathematical and mechanical minds, but not me,” said Murphy “I failed my very first flight check. That really punched me into gear.”
After a lot of struggling and studying Murphy graduated flight school.
“Graduating flight school was one of my proudest moments. Everything felt stacked against me and I made it through,” said Murphy.
Murphy married his wife Carolyn, an art historian and curator, Nov. 16, 1999.
“I called her and told her I had gotten my orders to Germany and she said ‘you mean we got our orders to Germany,’” said Murphy. “And that was how the decision to get married happened.”
They were married in a courthouse in Ozark, Ala.
During Murphy’s time as an Army aviator, he began to notice differences between himself and his peers.
“I realized that the way I learn is very different from my peers,” said Murphy. “Everything to me became a story. I would visualize how a drop of oil would flow through a helicopter.”
“I think it’s very important for people to understand how they learn,” added Murphy. “If you don’t understand how you learn, you will struggle trying to learn new things.”
After 11 years of flying, Murphy decided it was time for a change. He became a Middle East FAO and began working with U.S. embassies in other nations.
During his training to become an FAO, he had the opportunity to attend the Turkish War College.
“To become an FAO you have to do in-country training, and mine happened to be at the Turkish War College,” said Murphy. “It’s a German based system where at a very young age you start taking these really difficult tests. Only about five percent of officers actually get into the school. They are almost guaranteed to make general officer if they graduate; even if you’re a lieutenant, your future path is decided.”
For Murphy, the challenges brought forth by a new language and culture were all part of the fun and excitement.
“That was my kind of dive into the deep end,” said Murphy. “My wife and I showed up at the school, we had ten months of Turkish training before that and it was like here you go, go live, and we had to figure everything out after that.”
“During that year, I had a budget to travel, and had to build my own travel schedule. We went to places like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria,” said Murphy. “The idea was you were free to go experience the environment, you just had to check in with the embassy when you went and write reports about your experiences.”
When not learning about the Middle East through travel, Murphy was in the classroom with his Turkish counterparts.
“The school was really rigorous, the Turks do two years of training,” said Murphy. “I only went through one year. It was really interesting and very difficult. It was in Turkish all the time, I had a sponsor who was forbidden to speak English to me, so when I left my Turkish was pretty good.”
“The actual war college itself would just beat these guys into the ground intellectually,” said Murphy. “My classmates were already really smart, but it was so rigorous; it was just test after test after test.”
After that year Murphy left and went to the embassy in Ankara to become the executive officer to an Air Force major general.
Eventually, Murphy found himself heading to Israel to work as a FAO in the holy land.
“In Israel I was an attaché,” said Murphy. “First I learned Hebrew and then I went over and was the ground forces adviser,”. “Even though I was an aviator I was responsible for tanks, artillery and medical stuff.”
Murphy worked for the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the 2008 war in Gaza.
“I was there for the Gaza campaign, and was the eyes and ears for the U.S. Department of Defense on the ground watching the war,” said Murphy. “I would get up every morning and drive to the war and take pictures and write reports. I almost got hit by a rocket one time, I got shot at a few times, but I wasn’t in uniform. I was in civilian clothes just watching.”
Murphy now works in eastern Afghanistan as a part of AfPak Hands. The program was developed to put “old hands” or experts on religious and cultural issues on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“My first impression was that he would be easy to get along with and that he was very approachable,” said U.S. Army Maj. John Kirchgessner, a liaison officer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. “It was refreshing to meet someone like him when I got here.”
“He’s taken an effort to get to know us in the informal settings like lunch and dinner, and he’s taken some time to teach me how to play guitar,” said Kirchgessner. “He really values that personal time in getting to know people more than your average officer. He takes an interest in everybody regardless of rank, a respectable quality in any man.”
For Murphy, this trait can be attributed to his natural curiosity and desire to learn.
“My father was a very curious guy, so I think I get a lot of that from him,” said Murphy.
“He’s a man that sees just about everything in this world in a shade of gray,” said Kirchgessner. “It’s helped me take a step back and realize what I think about any given topic. It’s just as important to see what other people think about it, that’s a valuable lesson.”
Murphy’s curiosity about the world around him has led him around the world, where he has learned to speak Dari, Hebrew and Turkish, play the guitar and has ran in several half and full marathons.
“I serve because my father was an immigrant, and I want to pay the country back for all the opportunities he was given and consequently I was given,” said Murphy.