Editor’s note: The Journal’s Unsung Heroes series spotlights a local veteran each Monday from Memorial Day to Veterans Day. If you would like to nominate an Unsung Hero, email [email protected]
Rotary club, two cats and caring for a farm property are what take up the time of former U.S. Coast Guard Cpt. Sean Murtagh. It is a quiet, nice life on the farm, but Murtagh fondly remembers the 32 years when he traveled across the United States for the Coast Guard.
“I served in places as diverse as Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Washington D.C. and Seward, Alaska,” Murtagh said. “Every assignment was different and exciting, and I got to work with some amazing men and women, many of whom I still stay in touch with.”
Murtagh began his career in the Coast Guard as a cadet in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
“My father served in the Coast Guard from 1962-1993,” Murtagh said. “My family followed him on all of his assignments, so I knew what it was going to be like starting in the academy.”
Kirsten Martin was another cadet at the academy in New London. Murtagh and Martin would not connect at the academy but some 10 years later started dating, and subsequently married, when they were both stationed at Coast Guard Headquarters.
Murtagh’s first assignment after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree and rank of ensign was as a deck watch officer on the 378-foot Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, named after Alexander Hamilton, who founded the Revenue Cutter Service that later became the Coast Guard. His patrols on Hamilton took him to the Caribbean, often for drug interdiction patrols and saving migrants at sea. He later served as an executive officer of a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Great Lakes and then as a search and rescue coordinator in New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1993-1996.
Murtagh then moved from one of the hottest places protected by the country to one of the coldest: the assignment to go to Alaska came in 1996.
“I went to Alaska expecting everything to be unbearably cold,” Murtagh said. “But I didn’t want to turn down the assignment because it was a position where I got to command a 110-foot patrol boat with a crew of 17 men and women.”
The tour turned out to be one of Murtagh’s favorites.
“Our patrol area was Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska,” he said. “Though the weather conditions could be rough, sometimes we would sail in seas up to 25-foot in the Gulf of Alaska, the scenery and marine wildlife up there was incredibly beautiful. I immediately fell in love with the area. We would see orcas, otters and whales regularly and had to make sure we gave them a wide right of way as to not disturb them.”
A large part of the mission in Alaska was fisheries enforcement. Murtagh would make sure that marine resources were protected and that fishermen obeyed laws that regarded what could be caught and how much. The assignment also conducted search and rescue missions for fishermen who got in trouble in those treacherous waters
An assignment in Washington D.C. led Murtagh back into contact with his future wife. The two got married and not long after Murtagh went to get his Master in Business Administration degree from the University of Rochester in 2001.
“After graduating from there, I was a budgets appropriation manager in our headquarters office in Washington D.C.,” Murtagh said. “It was a position that dealt with executing our budget in accordance with fiscal law and OMB regulations, and the degree really helped with the similar positions that came after.”
Murtagh continued to take Coast Guard assignments that were a challenge. One included a tour as the Deputy Executive Secretary of Homeland Security from 2008-2010, and another as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2010. One of his most important positions came in 2011 when he became the chief budget officer of the Coast Guard after attaining the rank of captain.
Murtagh and his budget team oversaw the annual Coast Guard appropriations of approximately $10 billion.
“Even though I’ve been retired from the Coast Guard since 2016, I’ve still had a strong desire to help others,” Murtagh said. “Veterans will tell you that the military embeds in you a sense to continue to serve a greater good and to try to make the world a better place, even after you leave the service.”
Beyond staying active with Rotary, Murtagh has kept himself busy with other nonprofit work. He is on the board of directors for the Military Women’s Memorial, the leading memorial and education center honoring women’s contributions to the service of our nation. Headquartered at Arlington National Cemetery, its mission is to tell the stories of women, past and present, who serve the nation.
“It is extremely important to recognize the more than three million women who have served in our military since the American Revolution and to hear their stories and honor their significant accomplishments,” Murtagh said. “I have had the honor of working with some incredible women during my time in the Coast Guard. Many of them are still my mentors.”
Additionally, Murtagh has taken up writing in his free time, joining a local writing group and has submitted a short story that will be published in Volume II for the anthology series “Ghost Stories of Shepherdstown.”
“I can’t quite reveal to everyone what it is about yet,” Murtagh said. “But I keep myself busy with writing, working on a farm property in Kearneysville and caring for my rescue cats, Lucy and Juno. I tend to cave into their demands. The military has given me a great life and I’m enjoying staying active in retirement.”