Of Duty and Bullfighting

In 1961, 15-year-old Bob Murray was sworn in as the newest member of the Five Points Delaware Junior Firefighter program. Bob’s dad was a lifetime member, and joining Five Points was a dream come true for young Bob. Bob was a sponge, learning all he could about the art and science of firefighting. He drilled and he trained. He responded, gaining confidence, skill, and pride at making a difference for his community.

Four years later, now a young man of 19, he heard his nation’s call to duty: She was at war, and he felt obliged to answer the call. In April 1966, after months of intense training and drill, he was a 20-year-old nervous young soldier joining his regiment, A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division, which deployed earlier to Vietnam.

Bob assumed his primary duties as a machine gunner on an M113, an armored personnel carrier commonly called a track. Shortly after Bob’s arrival, he earned his nickname, as all firefighters and soldiers do. While Bob was clearing a rice paddy for mines, a nearby water buffalo took offense to Bob’s presence and attacked, throwing him head over heels into the rice paddy. Bob took offense to being gored, and so he grabbed his rifle and shot it dead. From that day forward, he was known as Bob “Bullfighter” Murray.

The 25th was based in Cu-Chi. A Troop had five armored personnel carriers/tracks and three Patton tanks assigned to each platoon. Their duties included three vital and dangerous functions: They performed bunker duty and patrol, recon and ambush patrol, and convoy escort patrol.

There were two convoys every day: one around 10 a.m. from Saigon to Cu-Chi and one around 2 p.m. from Cu-Chi to Saigon. It was the 4th Cavalry’s responsibility to clear the roads of booby traps and protect the convoy from ambushes.

March 5, 1967, started out like any other day in Vietnam for Bullfighter and his fellow soldiers; today’s duty was convoy escort and protection. Bullfighter’s platoon was short of soldiers, so today they only had three on his track.

Intelligence had reported that an ambush might occur about 10 clicks outside of Cu-Chi. Bullfighter’s and another track were ordered to set up near that location. Bullfighter was in the lead track, which pulled off the road and was getting into position. The second track came in behind but swung wide and hit an anti-tank mine, thought to be a bomb.

The explosion was deafening. Fire and smoke erupted from the second track as this 15-ton vehicle, loaded with munitions, flew into the air and flipped over. As Bullfighter began to dismount to render aid, gunfire erupted from a VC ambush across the road. Bullfighter’s sergeant began returning fire. Bullfighter’s firefighting training kicked in; he began running without his helmet, without his flak jacket, racing toward his trapped friends. Bullfighter saw Sgt. Walter Blalock had been blown clear. With total disregard for his own safety, Bullfighter forced open the upside-down track’s door and pulled out the other unconscious gunner.

Bullfighter then ran back to the burning track, now heavily involved, to free the 19-year-old medic, Dennis Jensen, who had less than one month in Vietnam. Two Navy Skyraiders were quickly on scene laying air support, while others from their platoon arrived to protect Bullfighter and the team.

Bullfighter freed Dennis and went back to the track. The fire now had completely engulfed the track, and Bullfighter was unable to extricate Don White, the driver. Dennis Jensen would die later that day; Sgt. Walter Blalock, the next day. The other gunner Bullfighter pulled out would survive and be reunited with Bullfighter a year later on riot duty in Trenton, New Jersey.

Bullfighter Murray got a standard DD 214 on discharge from the Army, but there was never any mention of that fateful day in March 1967. A few months ago, 50 years later, a letter came from the Army, telling Bob “Bullfighter” Murray that he was going to receive the Army valor commendation.

For centuries, the debate has raged as to whether mankind is a self-interested, self-absorbed creature as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and St. Augustine thought or a virtuous and kind creature as Kropotkin, Russo, and Plato thought and either tamed by or corrupted by society. There is ample evidence that humanity has many hyper-social instincts that are expressed in our societies and our values. We find sociability and prosocial behavior to be virtuous.

It would be wrong to say that instinct alone explains the virtue that one sees in men like Bob Murray, Paddy Brown, Timmy Stackpole, and Ray Downey; our sense of duty has clearly evolved. It may be our most basic instinct that we are compelled to help one another, especially in times of need and danger – this compulsion, this instinct expressed as duty. Our sense of duty is an ancient and honored tradition taken to perhaps its highest levels in the craft of firefighting.

That is why it is unnecessary to explain words like responsibility, fidelity, honor, and duty to an experienced firefighter. Our American forefathers understood that for every one of our inalienable rights there was a corresponding duty. Our culture has nurtured men like Bob Murray to be virtuous; to train and drill as firefighters from a young age; and to use that virtue, training, and drill throughout their lives, providing role models for others.

Bob Murray didn’t do what he did on March 5, 1967, out of instinct, for recognition, or for medals; nor was it borne out of training alone. It came from far deeper than that. To paraphrase the great jurist Clarence Thomas: We are unapologetically faithful, we are unapologetically patriotic, we are unapologetically dutiful. We are who we are. We must show our true colors. We are America’s Bravest.

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