Long before he would become the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history and long before would become, on questions of national security, the one House Democrat whose support and counsel U.S. presidents of both parties would seek and value, Rep. Jack Murtha — who died last week at 77 — was a Marine.

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

During the Korean War, the 19-year-old Murtha left the safe harbor of a college deferment to enlist in the Marine Corps. Fourteen years later, the United States was involved in a different war in Asia. But as a veteran of active duty service and with a wife and three children, Murtha, then 33, was not eligible for the military draft. Still, he volunteered for combat in the Vietnam War, where he was twice wounded and received two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with Combat “V,” and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

In 1974, he became the first combat veteran of that war to win election to Congress.

Like all Marines, Murtha was taught that “officers eat last.” Not until after all the men in his command have eaten does the officer even begin to feed himself. A Marine leader, first and foremost, takes care of his people. That was Murtha’s guiding value.

Because he was a Marine enlisted man, a private long before he ever became a colonel, Murtha knew that the most important people in the military are not the generals with their flattering entourages, but the sergeants and the junior officers who make everything work. When Murtha visited the troops as a congressman — which was every chance he got — he ate with, talked to and listened to the lowliest enlisted men. Their health, safety and well-being were his paramount concerns. Their cause and that of their families he made his own.

And ultimately it was his passion for the plight of Marines and soldiers “who cannot speak for themselves” that forced Murtha in November 2005 to leave the comfort of the Capitol’s back rooms where he reigned as a legislative giant and go public in calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Overnight, Murtha — a pro-labor New Dealer who opposed both abortion and gun control — became the favorite of antiwar liberals and the nemesis of the Bush administration, as well as the target of Republican and conservative groups, which would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, unsuccessfully, trying to defeat him.

Throughout his 36 years in Congress, Murtha never forgot the Marine Corps rule “to take care of his people.” He used his great skill and position to fight, successfully, for every dollar — both public and private — that could benefit his untrendy and economically troubled western Pennsylvania district.

Some of the projects were dubious. Editorialists and reformers called him, not without evidence, the King of Earmarks. But let the record be absolutely clear: Murtha, after nearly four decades in power, had a net worth of $84,010 to $263,000 — about one-20th that of the average House member.

Every week, without any cameras or microphones, Murtha went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda National Naval Medical Center to honor, to comfort and to encourage those young Americans who had lost their limbs, their sight and their youth in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, unlike so many of the armchair commandos in high public office with their Old Glory lapel pins and their bottomless enthusiasm for sending young Americans into battle, Murtha attended the wakes and the funerals of those who gave the last full measure of devotion and whose names he knew. A leader takes care of his people first.

Murtha was no plaster saint. Like each of us, he had his faults. But he loved the country he served so bravely and so well and the Marine Corps, whose values he lived.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.