Right Opinion

The Amazing Mrs. Murphy

Roy Exum · May 15, 2010

Exactly one month ago today a lady named Pamela Murphy died in California and there was only a paid, one-paragraph obituary in the Los Angeles Times. She was 90 years old so the funeral wasn’t a big one, nothing like back in 1971 when her husband’s death was quite literally heralded on the very front page of every newspaper in the nation, but the amazing Mrs. Murphy was quite a hero, too.

It all started in the early ‘50s when she, a beautiful flight attendant at the time, fell in love with a little 5-foot-5 high school drop-out from Texas. He had lied in several different ways to get into the fight for his country in World War II and, after being rejected by both the Navy and the Marines because he was so frightfully slight-of-build, he finally hooked up with the troop-starved Army.

Once his unit got to Europe the baby-faced kid – Audie Murphy – soon became one of the greatest heroes this nation has ever known. Even today the grave of the fabled Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Arlington National Cemetery has more visitors than any other except for that of John F. Kennedy.

After Audie came back home and his picture was plastered on the front of Life Magazine, actor Jimmy Cagney lured him to Hollywood. At first things seemed bleak but when they finally put Murphy’s own miraculous and heroic story on film in a 1955 movie called “To Hell And Back,” it became the world’s top grossing film until 20 years later when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” finally broke the record.

Now what you need to know is that Audie Murphy came back from his horrifying war experience with some terrible demons he could never slay. Sure, he once knocked out six German tanks and killed 150 of the enemy all by himself but, in the process, he became badly afflicted with what is today called “post-traumatic stress disorder.” His nightmares and torments were awful and, for that matter, so was his life in a very private, hushed way because, back then, nobody would dare slur Audie Murphy.

His first marriage lasted only two years, ending just after he pulled a pistol on his wife, so it was into quite a different battlefield that the former Pamela Opal Lee entered when she next took his hand in marriage. They soon had two sons but Audie was “running wide open” by then.

Are you kidding me? He was a famous movie actor and a far-more-famous war hero, buying ranches in Texas and Arizona and California, raising cattle and horses as well as “all manner of hell.” He was living, as they say, “larger than he was” and Audie Murphy was evermore huge.

Audie made a pile of money but between bad investments, bad bets and an endless parade of bad women he was badly in debt on that Memorial Day weekend in 1971 when his private plane crashed near Roanoke, Va. He was also estranged from Pamela at the time of his death but she would forever insist, “Even with the adultery and desertion at the end, he always remained my hero.”

Armed with such unfailing devotion, she moved into a small apartment and got a job working as a clerk at a VA hospital. It appeared, at least on the surface, as a way to scrap out a meager living, to pay off Audie’s debts, but there was more – in her precious heart there had been born a calling.

Because she’d had lived beside those post-traumatic demons some combat soldiers can’t help bringing back home, she would spend the next 35 years as a fierce advocate for the veterans who have served our country.

Dennis McCarthy, a wonderful columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, would later write, “She never called a veteran by his first name. It was always 'Mister.’ Respect came with the job. At first, no one knew who she was. Soon, though, word spread through the VA that the nice woman with the clipboard was Audie Murphy’s widow.

"It was like saying Patton had just walked in the front door,” Dennis wrote. “Men with tears in their eyes walked up to her and gave her a hug. ‘Thank you,’ they said, over and over. The first couple of years, I think the hugs were more for Audie’s memory as a war hero. The last 30 years, they were for Pam.”

Stephen Sherman, one of the veterans served by the Sepulveda VA Hospital, described her well. “Nobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy. Many times I watched her march a veteran who had been waiting more than an hour right into the doctor’s office. She was even reprimanded a few times, but it didn’t matter to Mrs. Murphy. Only her boys mattered. She was our angel.”

It was as though her creed, her goal in life before she died at age 90 last month, was what Teddy Roosevelt once said rather historically, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

That was what made Pamela Murphy such a hero to literally thousands of vets, those who may not have won the awards Audie once did but who were treated with the same respect, kindness and love. Pamela knew what they went through so our country would be what it is today.

They said she died, at age 90, watching a Lakers game on TV. When she did, she was a bigger hero than any player on the floor. Our Mrs. Murphy was an amazing woman indeed.