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The braveheart from Wisconsin

Service above self. A survivor of the alleged hate crime at the Wisconsin gurudwara, Lt Brian Murphy was shot 15 times. He is overwhelmed by the support of the Sikhs, which helped him overcome the ordeal. Khushwant Singh writes.

punjab Updated: Feb 10, 2013 09:25 IST
Khushwant Singh

This is one of the most overwhelming interviews that I have ever conducted. Overwhelming, because it is hard to describe the valour and resilience of someone who has taken 15 9 mm bullets in line of duty, saved scores of lives and damn it - is still alive. Meet 51-year-old Lt Brian Murphy, the police officer from Oak Street, Wisconsin, USA, who was the first to reach the scene at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple where a lunatic by the name of Wade Michael Page had gone on a shooting spree, killing six worshippers six months ago. Back from the hospital, Lt Murphy graciously agreed to talk about it. This, despite him being able to speak only in whispers since one of the bullets had lodged itself in his larynx. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Were you aware about the existence of the Sikh community before this encounter?
A. Yes, indeed. I had been stationed as a part of the Marine embassy at Afghanistan and would fly to New Delhi very frequently. I cannot say that I was very familiar with the Sikhs, but I knew about them.

Q. Can you give a brief bio?
A. Born in Brooklyn, New York, I was one of four children (two brothers and two sisters). Raised as a Catholic, I come from a middle class family. My father was a sanitation officer and my mother worked in a bank. My whole family is in the police. The only reason my father couldn’t join [the police] was because in those days they didn’t enroll you if you wore glasses. I am married and have a 23-year-old daughter, a four-year-old stepson and a six-year-old stepdaughter. Before joining the police, I served in the Marines [US Marine Corps] for five years, then the UN, before getting selected in the Oak Street police department in 1990.

Q. The scene from getting a call to the encounter. What was going on in your mind when you were racing to the site?
A. It was great weather, things were going smoothly and I was texting my wife to go shopping to get the school supplies for the kids once I was home. And then the call came, informing me of possible shots fired at the Sikh temple. In a snap of a finger, I was zipping from zero to two hundred kilometers per hour. I knew I was the closest and would be the first one on the scene. My foremost thought was to remain as calm as possible. And since I had visited the Sikh temple earlier for routine security updates, what ran in my mind was - how I would place myself once there, give myself cover or where would the people be and how many? Where would the gunman be? And on reaching, there was this darned malfunction with the switch that releases the semi-automatic AR 15 that is fitted in all squad cars.

Q. Would you describe the gunfight?
A. When I reached the spot, I saw two men lying down. With the hope that I might be able to save them, I rushed towards them. But when I was within 10 feet of them, I saw them lying one over the other, their eyes popping out and figured that they may have deceased. Then I felt a movement. A man, non-Sikh, I notice. A white male, wearing a white shirt, black trousers and a black gun in his hand, with no emotion, fear, anger or hate on his face. I was convinced that he was the guy. He was heading for his truck in the parking lot. I already had my .45 handgun out and yelled at him. I think we shot at the same time. I missed, and he hit me. The first shot I got was in the chin, which ripped my larynx. It felt like a hard punch. I swiftly got behind my car and ducked. He out-manoeuvred me and came from the rear. He shot again, this time ripping off my left thumb and probably knocking the gun out of my hand. That’s going to leave a mark, I thought. And dammit, my wife is going to be upset with me because two weeks later we were scheduled to fly to Florida for our honeymoon. I flipped over and started crawling, but by this time he had probably shot me six times. There was a lull, as he reloaded his gun and shot at me again – in my arm, in my legs and then in the back of my skull. It was a cosy feeling when I was sinking, but I was determined not to fade away like this. I think this is what kept me alive.

Q. What have been your experiences with the Sikh community post the event and your recovery?
A. (Breaks down) There has never been and will never be a group of people who have been nicer in every possible way. You can’t imagine how supportive the community has been throughout this ordeal. I don’t usually cry, I didn’t cry when Page shot me, I never cried when my sister died of cancer. But I have to tell you Mr Singh, the outpouring of the Sikh community has been nothing short of a miracle.

Q. Your suggestions on how the Sikh community can fight these prejudices, be at the social level and with the law enforcers?
A. The kind of activism that happened in Oak Creek post the tragedy should have happened before the tragedy. Every community has to be pro-active. Hate crime is not about anything but about being ignorant. One of the tenets of the Sikh religion is: Protect and Serve. This is also written on every police car of the United States. But if you ask any cop which religion’s motto is this, not many would know. This just shows there is not as much knowledge sharing as it should be. Not that I am convinced that any activism would have stopped Michael Page, but then it will stop somebody.

Q. If you look back at the incident, what are your thoughts? How has it changed your life?
A. In life, I would generally be worrying about things much smaller than this. Once you are hit 15 times and you still have two bullets riddled in your body, you come to realise that those things mean nothing. (Laughs). And yes, I miss being a cop.

Q. Any thought on visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikhs’ most sacred place?
A. I am actually working with my chief on a programme to train with law enforcement members of the Indian government. If that opportunity comes my way, the only way I can show my thanks to the Sikh community is by paying obeisance at the Golden Temple.

Q. Your comments on being voted as the Sikhchic of the year?
A. It has been humbling. It sounds silly, but sometimes there aren’t enough words which can bring forth how much this affection means for my wife and me. And sorry for edging you out, you were also one of the nominees.

Both of us laugh and I invite Brian to be my guest whenever his Punjab plan materialises.