WASHINGTON — In a somber, understated ceremony in the White House East Room, President Bush on Monday awarded the Medal of Honor to a Navy SEAL mortally wounded two years ago on a hillside in Afghanistan after he sent out an emergency call for reinforcements and continued firing at Taliban insurgents.
The medal, given to Lt. Michael P. Murphy, 29, of Patch- ogue, N.Y., is the nation's highest military honor. This is the first one the president has bestowed for action in Afghanistan. Bush, who has awarded nine Medals of Honor, has presented two for gallantry in Iraq.
"With this medal, we acknowledge a debt that will not diminish with time -- and can never be repaid," the president said, with the lieutenant's parents, Daniel and Maureen Murphy, seated in front of him in an audience made up of family members, members of Congress, and senior White House and Pentagon officials.
The story of Murphy's sacrifice, Bush said, "humbles and inspires all who hear it."
According to the citation that accompanied the medal, Murphy and the others in his four-member team were conducting surveillance in a rugged part of Konar province on June 28, 2005, when anti-coalition militia sympathizers discovered them and reported their position to Taliban fighters. Some 30 to 40 insurgents besieged them.
"Their only escape was down the side of a mountain -- and the SEALs launched a valiant counterattack while cascading from cliff to cliff," Bush said.
With the enemy closing in, the president said, reading quickly through his remarks, Murphy tried to call for reinforcements. "With complete disregard for his own life, he moved into a clearing where his phone would get reception," Bush added.
That move -- "a deliberate heroic act," the president said -- exposed Murphy to enemy fire. He completed the call, remaining composed enough to end it by saying, "Thank you," the president said, and continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded.
That day was a brutal one for American forces in Afghanistan and for the SEALs, a special warfare unit whose name comes from its ability to fight on sea, in the air and on land. It was the deadliest day for Navy special warfare forces since World War II, Bush said, and produced more U.S. casualties than any day in Afghanistan since the war began there in 2001.
Only one of the SEALs on Murphy's team survived. Eight other SEALs and eight soldiers were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade brought down the MH-47 Chinook helicopter sent to rescue the besieged team.
Bush held Murphy's mother's hand as a military aide read the citation recounting her son's heroics. As the ceremony ended, Bush, who has said that he sometimes tears up when meeting in private with families of fallen troops, hugged her and Murphy's father, winner of a Purple Heart for action in Vietnam. He then hugged the lieutenant's mother again as she held the framed glass case containing the medal star on a blue ribbon.