Pay it Forward

Brotherhood of veterans goes above and beyond

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Matthew McMurtry

Last month, my father, George McMurtry, 80, passed. He was a Vietnam veteran, having served the Navy on the aircraft carrier, Intrepid. It was the representative from the funeral home, an Army veteran, who came to take my deceased dad, covered him with an American flag cloth and saluted him, and then hugged me and my brother, Steve, both of us veterans, that made me realize that there is such a distinct and beautiful camaraderie between veterans – no matter if strangers or friends.

This experience conveys clearly just how strong and poignant is that veteran connection, and how willing veterans are to go above and beyond, no matter the circumstances.

McMURTRY had at one time collected about 50 “challenge coins” given to him by his commanders or for specific achievements along the way.

But first, some background. One version of how the military “challenge coin” came about was during World War II. A commander had designed a unit medallion and gave one to each member of his squadron. A young pilot flying a mission over Germany was shot down, was captured, and later escaped into France – only to be captured by the French resistance.

He was unable to prove his identity because all of his belongings had been taken from him by his German captors – everything except the medallion he wore on a chain around his neck. One of the members of the resistance recognized the medallion and realized this pilot was an ally; so, they gave him a bottle of wine.

Throughout my time as an enlisted Terminal Attack Control Party (TACP) member and as an officer in two separate career fields in the Air Force, I collected about 50 coins. Many of the coins were given to me by commanders or for a specific achievement along the way. One of the coins was particularly special, mainly due to the significant event that led me to receive the coin.

In 2012, I was stationed in Germany. I received a call from my best friend’s wife, Heather, that David had been killed in Afghanistan with another Army Major and an Army Sergeant Major. She asked me to escort Dave’s casket home and I did not hesitate. The next day, the military plane landed in Germany to refuel and I made sure I was on it.

The next two weeks I would travel to Dover Air Force Base (AFB), Colorado Springs, Arlington National Cemetery, and then return to Germany. It would be one of the most emotional and challenging experiences of my life, but he would have done it for me.

VETERAN MATTHEW McMurtry was asked to escort a friend’s casket home by his widow. He didn’t hesitate, traveling to Dover AFB, Colorado Springs, on to Arlington, then back to Germany.

Upon my arrival in Dover AFB, we were taken to a place called the Fisher House, where families and other two military escorts were waiting. We went to a back door and entered the kitchen but were not allowed to go in. Someone said, “The General is speaking to the families,” and they did not want to interrupt him. My first thought was that it was the commander for Dover AFB. It did not occur to me that the Brigadier General, the one-star general in the kitchen with me, was the commander of Dover AFB.

We entered 10 minutes later and I walked up behind Heather as she spoke with the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Heather introduced me and as we talked, he motioned to his aide for something. He handed me one of his coins and thanked me for what I was doing for my brother-in-arms. I told him, as much as I hated what I was doing, I would not have it any other way. He would have done it for me if our places were reversed and would have hated it just as much.

I escorted Dave home for a service in Colorado Springs and then on to Arlington. When I returned to Germany, I took out the coin and put it with the rest I had collected. I told Jennifer, my wife, that when I retired, it would go in my retirement shadow box. Unfortunately, when we moved from Germany three years later, the movers stole a medallion my grandmother had given me and all of my military coins. I tried several avenues to get another coin from Gen. Dempsey, but I was unsuccessful every time.

Fast forward to 2017, a few weeks after I arrived in Afghanistan. Major Seth Hall, an Army officer who I had previously met through another friend, stopped me one day. He said he had been talking to Major Tommy Kealy and through their conversation he realized I had escorted Dave to Dover AFB in 2012. He said he was the best friend of the Army Major killed alongside Dave and that he was at Dover AFB the same time I was. We actually stood on the flight line together, behind the plane, as our best friends were carried off by the Honor Guard. More than five years later, we were deployed to the same location and a random conversation brought us together. I proceeded to tell him about the lost coin.

Over a month later, some of the military guys were getting together. As we sat there talking about random topics, Maj. Kealy looked at me and said they had gotten everyone together for a specific reason: Me. He turned the conversation over to Maj. Hall, who handed me an envelope. In the envelope was an identical coin to the one that had been stolen. These men had recognized the significance of that coin and what it meant to me, and they had gone above and beyond to track down another one for me. I am not too proud to say the gesture caused me to shed a few tears in front of these men.

I share this story to let others know about the special bond we share in the military. Being a veteran is difficult, and we are constantly separated from our families for long periods of time, but we meet amazing, selfless, and courageous people along the way. 

Matthew McMurtry currently works in D.C. and has completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He owns a home on Tessentee Road in Franklin and plans to retire here “as soon as possible.”