Young Marine deals with difficult, but inspiring leave time away from Iraq
He looked like a Marine should at a formal occasion. A sharp dress blue uniform, tight white gloves, black shoes gleaming.
White cover in hand, Lance Cpl. Travis Murray calmly greeted those paying their last respects to his mother Karen.
Murray’s composure belied his whirlwind past 18 days. He started on active duty in Iraq’s Anbar province and returned to Southwest Florida to find his mother dying in a hospital. With the help of many, Murray met and had a private conversation with President Barack Obama three days after Karen’s death.
Thursday was the end, and the morning service in a North Naples funeral home turned Murray’s eyes from soft brown to red.
“It’s only been my mom and me my whole life,” he said.
Over the last week, it’s been so much more.
Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., helped the 20-year-old Murray extend his leave from the Marines for two weeks to cope.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and Fort Myers Mayor Jim Humphrey helped set up Murray’s meeting with Obama. Meek gave Murray his American flag lapel pin, which Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway had given Meek the week prior.
A local veterans organization helped secure dress blues for Murray, and provide the full military burial that Karen, as an Air Force veteran, was entitled to receive.
It all started when St. James City resident and Marine veteran Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch got wind of Murray’s story and made it his quest to help.
Bunch founded a military assistance group called Operation Open Arms to support local troops on leave from Iraq and Afghanistan. Bunch made all the contacts. They led to Murray’s connection with Obama after the president’s speech Tuesday in Fort Myers.
“It was almost like being a Marine on active duty for one more day,” Bunch said. “I was a captain taking care of a lance corporal again.”
Monday night, an Obama staffer contacted Murray, a Lely High School graduate, to tell him there was a good chance he would meet the president the next day.
Murray, dressed in uniform, had a front-row seat for Obama’s speech at the Harborside Events Center. Afterward, Murray was told to sit tight. His meeting with Obama would be the president’s last at the event.
There was an instant bond between Murray and the president, who was also raised by a single mother, Murray said. Their brief conversation “felt like an hour.”
“He was really down to earth,” Murray said. “It felt just really normal talking to him.”
Obama was pleased to have the opportunity.
“President Obama’s thoughts and prayers are with Travis and his family during this very difficult time,” a White House spokeswoman said in an e-mail to the Naples Daily News. “The president was pleased to have the opportunity to personally thank Travis for his bravery and service to our country.”
Before Murray met the president, he had to face some of the hardest decisions of his life.
When Murray was in Iraq, he received word that his mother was in a coma after suffering from a seizure. Karen Murray, her son said, had been in chronic pain and had recent back and neck surgeries. He believed everything was catching up with her. He arrived at the hospital. She was out of the coma, but heavily sedated.
“I want to think she knew I was there,” Murray said.
Karen Murray’s condition wasn’t improving, and her kidneys had failed. Doctors told Travis he had a decision to make. Travis knew his mother didn’t want to be on a feeding tube. Karen Murray died Saturday at age 58.
“She’s been in pain for two years,” he said. “She’s not hurting any more.”
Travis’s godmother, Rhonda Borden, said the help Travis and his family received has made their situation easier to bear.
“We’re humbled at the compassion everyone has shown,” Borden said.
Travis is due to return to Marine Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., on Feb. 28, but was told he had more time if he needed it.
It’s a new stage in his life. The events of this week show he will still have help.
“I believe it’s my mother’s work,” Travis said. “She’s looking down on me.”