Like Father, Like Son

23 Jun 2003 | Army Master Sgt. Robert Cargie

Before Operation Iraqi Freedom started Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Murlless admitted joking many times, "If a father can't take his son to war with him what kind of father is he."  He doesn't joke about it anymore.

Murlless and his son, Reserve Cpl. Thomas Murlless, are members of the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company from Camp Pendleton, Calif.  They were activated and deployed to Kuwait in January 2003.  They were assigned to the I Marine Expeditionary Force and both saw combat in different parts of southern Iraq.

"War is serious business," the older Murlless said somberly, realizing how unfunny his joke could have been.  "I always knew that but I found myself in this odd situation.  I guess I joked because I didn't know how to deal with it."

A Vietnam War veteran, Murlless knows what it's like to be in combat.  He has been a Marine since 1966.  He served two combat tours in Vietnam and worked there as a civilian for another six years.  He met and married Thomas's mother there.

Following in his father's footsteps Thomas joined the Marine Corps in 1997.  He asked for advice on what job he should take.  His father went to his roots and recommended Thomas choose the job of a forward observer.  The elfer Murlless has been involved in directing artillery, naval gunnery and close air support to enemy targets for most of his career.  And that is what Thomas grew up with.

"When I was a kid I used to hear all these exciting stories my dad would tell about what he was doing," Thomas said.  "So I decided to try it."

The elder Murlless describes his job this way.

"We act as communication liaisons when two separate forces are working together," Murlless said.  "In this case we were working with the British."

The elder Murlless was assigned to a British battle group.  He was a firepower control team leader.  He said his four-man team provided British commanders access to what Navy and Marines Corps firepower had to offer. 

"That's where the rubber meets the road," said Murlless.  He stayed with the "Brits", as he called them, throughout the conflict while the British forces secured the Marine Corps' right flank.  Their main objective was the southern Iraqi city of Basrah and the surrounding area.

While Murlless was fighting in the south, his son was moving rapidly north towards Baghdad.  The corporal was assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) for the duration of the conflict.  As a forward observer he was heavily involved in any combat his unit was engaged in.

Murlless was uncomfortable when he found out where his son had been assigned.  And while he had an opportunity to change the course of his son's assignment, he decided against intervening.

"The(commanding officer) asked me if I wanted to go through with sending both of us into combat," Murlless said.  "One of us could have stayed back.  I told him it wasn't necessary."

Few fathers have the opportunity to make such a crucial decision about the fate of their sons.  Murlless said he could not deny his son the experience they both faced.

Murlless said bluntly, "He's thirty years old.  He's a man."

Now his son Thomas is being considered for an award of valor for actions he took in Baghdad in the waning days of the conflict.  He was supporting a platoon-size patrol in what was known as Saddam City.  The group was ambushed and received a "high volume of enemy fire."  Exposing himself to the enemy, Thomas ran forward, took a position and returned fire.

Hesitantly and humbly the corporal related his involvement.  "We basically suppressed the enemy," he said.  "As fire support we did what we were suppose to do."

His father, although proud, was concerned.  "I had no idea he was going to stick his neck out," Murlless said looking over at his son.  "It was unsettling to me after I learned what he did.  His instructions were to take it easy and stay safe."

With the subsiding of hostilities, father and son returned to Kuwait. They met again after almost four months May 15.

"That was a good day," the senior Murlless said.  "I was glad to see him because up until that time I hadn't heard anything about him."

When asked what it was like to be in the same country, involved in the same operation both father and son looked down and remained quiet.  After a moment the senior Murlless spoke.

"I did my best to keep my concern for him from effecting my judgment when I was in battle," Murlless said.

Murlless said he took time when he could, especially in the "quiet moments", to think about what his son was doing and where he was.  What made this more difficult were the reports he heard from Stars and Stripes and the BBC World Service about Marines dying in ambushes and Marines in armored vehicles being attacked by Iraqis with rocket propelled grenades.  The senior Murlless said he "just prayed a lot."

The younger Murlless was curtly philosophical about his time in combat.  "I took it day by day," Thomas said.  "I thought about him.  I did my job and I was glad to see tomorrow.  And when I saw him I was glad to see him in one piece."

Summing up their experience together the senior Murlless spoke of fate and how with the right training and ability someone - anyone can find themselves complete after experiencing the riggers of war.

"He has seen more in a month than most people see in a lifetime," Murlless said referring to his son.  "Everything he told me about his experience and what I know about mine shows me that you can survive.  You make the decision early on that you will survive and that guides you."

Father and son are scheduled to return to the United States soon.  According to them the unique experience has brought them closer than they thought possible.  They said they would always have the shared knowledge and understanding of what it's like to be in combat. 

"Combat is an experience you can't truly share with someone else unless they've been through it," said the chief warrent officer.  "People shooting at you are still people shooting at you no matter where it happens and being part of it is the only way you can know what it's like."

In the end, the elder Murlless said, even if they never speak of their combat experience with one another again it is indelibly etched into their beings.  All they have to do is look into each other's eyes and they know.