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Audie Murphy: Branded by War, but Not Defeated by It

Audie Murphy is the most decorated soldier in American history. He received the Medal of Honor in World War II and many other awards for valor— including three Purple Hearts.

After the war, he built a successful career as a Hollywood actor and country and western songwriter.

He also lived with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and became an advocate for veterans, speaking openly about his ”battle fatigue” and calling for greater mental health care.

Born into poverty in Texas in 1924, he enlisted in the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With the 3rd Infantry Division, he fought in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany—at one point winning a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant. 

On Jan. 26, 1945, he fought the battle in France that earned him the Medal of Honor.  

He then single-handedly fought the enemy advance.

Twenty-four inches of snow were on the ground and the temperature was 16 degrees below freezing. In the face of an armored attack from three sides, he ordered his company to retreat to a more protected position. He then single-handedly fought the enemy advance. He used his rifle until it ran out of ammunition, then a machine gun from on top of a burning tank destroyer and finally a land-line telephone to call in artillery strikes.

He then rallied his men into a counterattack. The official citation for his Medal of Honor declared that “his refusal to give an inch” of ground saved his company from encirclement and destruction” and held a vital position the enemy desperately sought to gain.

But heroism came with a price.

For the rest of his life, Murphy lived with insomnia, nightmares, paranoia and depression. He once claimed that the only way he could sleep was with a loaded pistol under his pillow.

When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me?

In his autobiography, To Hell and Back (1949) he described the emotional conflict that haunted him:

"Like a horror film running backwards images of war flicker through my brain… I cannot sleep. My mind still whirls. When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood stripped me of all decency?"

But he expressed hope and faith.

"I believe in men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.

My country. America! We have been so intent on death that we have forgotten life. And now suddenly life faces us. I swear to myself that I will measure up to it. I may be branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it."

Even while struggling with PTSD, Murphy launched a movie career starring in over 40 films.

Even while struggling with PTSD, Murphy launched a movie career starring in over 40 films. He played himself in the film version of To Hell and Back (1955), which became Universal Studios’ biggest hit—ever— until 20 years later when Stephen Spielberg’s  Jaws surpassed it.

He served as a major in the Texas National Guard and then the Army Reserve.

He died in a private plane crash in 1971. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.


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