HARRISBURG, Pa. —Rep. John Murtha, the tall, gruff-mannered former Marine who became the de facto voice of veterans on Capitol Hill and later an outspoken and influential critic of the Iraq war, died Monday. He was 77.
The Pennsylvania Democrat had been suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. He died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said.
In 1974 Murtha, then an officer in the Marine Reserves who received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Ethical questions often shadowed his congressional service, but he was best known for being among Congress' most hawkish Democrats.
Murtha voted in 2002 to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq, but his growing frustration over the administration's handling of the war prompted him in November 2005 to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
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"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," he said.
Murtha "was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress, and he was incredibly effective in his service in the House," said Rep. David Obey, a Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "He understood the misery of war. Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today."
"Ever since I was a young boy, I had two goals in life — I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress," Murtha wrote in his 2004 book, "From Vietnam to 9/11."
Constituents credited him with bringing jobs and health care to the region, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars for local industry, hospitals and tourism. Critics derisively nicknamed Murtha the "king of pork" and said he used his position on the defense subcommittee to win favors.
Murtha routinely drew the attention of ethical watchdogs with off-the-floor activities, from his entanglement in the Abscam corruption probe three decades ago to the more recent scrutiny of the connection between special-interest spending known as earmarks and the raising of cash for campaigns.
Murtha defended the practice of earmarking. The money, he said, benefited his constituents.
Murtha's district encompasses all or part of nine counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and embodies the region's stereotypes of coal mines, steel mills and blue-collar values.
State Sen. Don White, an Army veteran and a Republican who represents a portion of Murtha's district, said he and Murtha were longtime friends, despite holding different political views and serving in different branches of the military.
"He made sure that Washington, D.C., knew where Johnstown, Indiana, Kittanning and a lot of other sites in western Pennsylvania were located," White said.