Why would two guys you had never heard of take on political powerhouse John Murtha?

Harry Beam, a Vietnam War veteran, and Craig Minnick, who served in the Persian Gulf, say they are not interested in political debates.

They believe that the congressman was wrong to call for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and wrong to publicly denounce Marines charged with murdering civilians at Haditha, Iraq.

That’s why they worked together to organize the “Boot Murtha” rally held last Sunday at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena. And while they hope to see the Democratic congressman defeated by Republican challenger Diana Irey on Election Day, Minnick said, the Upper Yoder Township men will be talking about Murtha long after Nov. 7.

“It’s important to educate people about what John Murtha has done and said over the past couple of years,” Minnick said. “And it’s not about politics. It’s about his attempts to change policy by attacking the men and women of the military at a time when we’re at war. I’ve been called a political hack and all kinds of things. But this is not about politics.”

Beam and Minnick – much like Murtha – have deep roots in the region.

Beam’s great-grandfather, Harry Berkley, operated a dairy farm along what is now Goucher Street in the early 1900s. That farm site is now home to Berkley Hills Golf Course, named for Beam’s ancestor.

Beam graduated from Conemaugh Township High School, Minnick from Ligonier Valley. Each has earned multiple degrees. Beam attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Minnick has a law degree from George Washington.

Both rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Beam was a platoon leader in Vietnam and then joined the National Guard unit in Johnstown. Minnick was stationed in Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 1994 and ’95. He returned to the Gulf in 2003-04, serving in Iraq and Kuwait as legal adviser to a brigadier general.

Beam first dipped into political activism in 2004, opposing Democratic candidate John Kerry’s bid for the presidency against George W. Bush. That same year, Minnick began to follow Murtha more closely, noting the lawmaker’s alliance with California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

The two say they met and formed a bond based on military experience and support for the ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe.

Their efforts peaked – so far – with the “Boot Murtha” rally.

They held a smaller gathering on the street near Murtha’s Johnstown office in August, and considered staging a protest during Showcase for Commerce in June.

They decided instead to hold a larger rally. They enlisted help from “Veterans for the Truth” – a national group led by North Carolina activist Larry Bailey. Bailey helped them bring in speakers such as Earl Johnson, a survivor of the World Trade Center attacks, and David Beamer, whose son Todd died on Flight 93 near Shanksville.

“We decided that we were not capable of doing the rally, just the two of us,” Minnick said. “But the only thing Harry and I didn’t do was get the speakers ... It was a local rally with assistance from outsiders.”

Beam said of Murtha’s supporters: “They’ve been trying to paint us as outsiders. But the core folks are here.”

Minnick pointed to the “Veterans for Murtha” rally held last Saturday in Central Park. That event, he said, featured speakers with no ties to the region or the 12th Congressional District.

“There was a misconception that (the “Boot Murtha” rally) was Larry Bailey’s group out of North Carolina coming into town,” Minnick said. “If I’m not mistaken, the ‘Vets for Murtha’ group is led by a former senator out of Georgia (Max Cleland). So when I hear Gov. Rendell speaking about how these ‘outsiders’ need to go home, I’m confused. I guess he thinks Georgia is part of Pennsylvania.”

And they’ve gotten some mixed reaction to their crusade – although Beam says “60 percent to 70 percent” of veterans are upset with Murtha.

“Some (people) will stop and talk with you, and are interested in what you have to say,” Beam said. “And some just give you the one-finger salute.”

“Nobody’s done more for the military than I have,” Murtha said. “That’s because of my influence, and also because I’ve been there so long. They obviously just disagree with what I’ve been saying.”

The big question is: Can they make a difference?

And: Why take on an institution such as Jack Murtha – whose name is on the local airport and on many buildings across town – in a region which is heavily Democratic?

“When you look at it politically, Republicans are outnumbered roughly 2-to-1 in Cambria County,” Beam said. “But I’m not looking at this politically, and I don’t think other people are either.

“People are motivated by a lot of things. There are a significant number of religious people around here who simply put the Lord above everything else. Right under that is their families. And right under that, they’re patriotic and they love their country and they support the military.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091 and cminemyer@cnhi.-com.

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