Comrades fondly remember Iraq War veteran ‘Eskimo Joe’

Earlier this month, 49-year-old Joseph Murphy died at Juneau’s prison 12 hours after being booked on noncriminal charges.

Among other things, Murphy was an Iraq War veteran. His squad commander says it changed him forever. I spoke to some of the men Murphy served with.

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Joseph Murphy (from left, first man kneeling) served in the Iraq War. The squad was led by Ed Irizarry (standing to the left above Murphy). Mike Mercer (far right) was a gunner with Murphy. (Photo courtesy Ed Irizarry)
Joseph Murphy (from left, first man kneeling) served in the Iraq War. The squad was led by Ed Irizarry (standing to the left above Murphy). Mike Mercer (far right) was a gunner with Murphy. (Photo courtesy Ed Irizarry)

Mike Mercer joined the Alaska Army National Guard in the summer of 2001.

“That’s where I met Murphy,” he says.

Mercer and Spc. Joseph Murphy both lived in Juneau.

“Murphy taught me how to march. Murphy taught me all the really basic stuff – how to shine my boots, how to stand at the position of attention, the position of parade rest,” Mercer says.

One weekend each month, they saw each other for training. Then in 2005, Mercer and Murphy and many others in the Alaska National Guard were sent to war for one year.

“When we went to Iraq, we all got different little nicknames and Murphy got Eskimo Joe,” Mercer says.

Murphy’s wife of many years could not be reached for comment. According to a paid obituary in the Juneau Empire, Murphy was born in Anchorage, but grew up in Emmonak.

Mercer and Murphy were both gunners, each conducting patrols from a gun turret of a Humvee.

“Murph just worked harder than everybody else it seemed like, just because he was always giving as much as he could give. He definitely took care of the guy to his left and to his right. If somebody needed more water, if somebody needed somebody to talk to, if somebody needed some help with anything, Murph was really supportive of people,” Mercer says.

Ed Irizarry says Murphy put his life in jeopardy looking out for others. Murphy was part of the squad Irizarry led in Iraq. During patrols, “we encountered other vehicles that were blocking roads that were suspicious. Could be a car bomb,” Irizarry says.

Irizarry recalls times when, “I was going to walk up to it and Murphy, you know, ‘No, I’ll go do it sergeant.’ He takes off running and he comes back and he says, ‘All clear.’ So what do you tell a man that has just went out there and could give his life for you? What do you tell that guy? A thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”

Irizarry was deeply sad when he heard Murphy died, “Joe was living with a lot of demons as the rest of us are.”

He mentions a specific car bombing in Iraq, but doesn’t give details.

“He had to witness something a human should never have to see. And I think that damaged him. You take a 40-year-old man who’s never seen anything like that in his life. And he’s got such a big heart, family oriented, do anything for anyone, happy-go-lucky, and then he sees that hell. That changes a man,” Irizarry says.

Irizarry lives in Ketchikan and retired from the military after 22 years, including time in four combat zones.

He says Murphy experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and sought help. More than 40 percent of National Guard members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD.

Murphy’s obituary says he also battled depression and struggled with substance abuse. But Irizarry wants Murphy to be remembered as the funny, kind man he was.

“You could crack a joke on him or tease him about something and he would laugh so hard at himself and just never got upset. He’d just kind of shake his head, ‘OK, you got me.’ So he was just like a young kid and you couldn’t help but fall in love with him,” Irizarry says.

Mike Mercer also experienced symptoms of PTSD, although he’s never been clinically diagnosed. Before Iraq, Mercer says he was a people person. When he returned to Juneau in 2006, he was apprehensive of large groups. He had bad dreams. He couldn’t watch July Fourth fireworks and had trouble driving close to other cars.

“All of us have had problems here and there. Some stuff fades, some stuff doesn’t,” Mercer says.

The last time Mercer saw Murphy was about five years ago at Fred Meyer.

“It doesn’t matter how long we go without seeing each other. Could’ve been another 10 years before I saw Murph, we’d still embrace each other as if we’d just seen other yesterday,” he says.

When you serve in war together, Mercer says, you’re brothers.

“It’s just a bond. You can’t break that. Time ain’t going to break it. I guess even the death of one of your brothers can’t break that either. Murph will always be my brother,” Mercer says.

Murphy was in the emergency room of Bartlett Regional Hospital the night of Aug. 13. Juneau Police transferred him to Lemon Creek Correctional Center on a 12-hour protective hold. A police spokesman says alcohol was a factor. Murphy died in a holding cell the next morning of an apparent heart attack.

The obituary says Murphy will be buried in Emmonak.