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Service Members Observe Memorial Day Through Sweat And Tears

May 27, 2013
Originally published on May 27, 2013 4:57 pm

At Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Michael Johnson exercises under a long, steel framework set on a wooden platform. It looks like a giant jungle gym. Above his head are pull-up bars and rings. A climbing rope is off to one side.

It's here where he and dozens of other soldiers and sailors will remember the fallen, just after sunrise, on Memorial Day. They'll all take part in a grueling exercise regimen, part of CrossFit, the popular high-intensity workout program.

"This one specifically — the Memorial Day Murph — is to honor Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was killed in action here in Afghanistan," Johnson says.

Murphy was killed somewhere in those craggy, snow-capped peaks that loom over the base to the east. He was leading a patrol back in June 2005. His unit came under intense Taliban fire and found shelter behind some rocks.

Murphy exposed himself to enemy fire so he could find a better position to send a distress signal. He was killed, and in 2007 he became the first American in Afghanistan to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

So Sunday, Johnson will lead a CrossFit workout called "Murph."

"The runner will start off by running 1 mile. A good mile, a good average mile, is gonna be around 6:30 to seven minutes. He'll do 100 pullups, then 200 pushups, then 300 squats," he says.

Johnson, 25, is on his third tour of duty. He's short with a steady gaze and thick arms. A tattoo of a shark biting an octopus curls around one bicep.

This workout might be hard for anyone in really good shape. These soldiers will make it harder. Johnson and the others will wear their body armor, including ammunition magazines and a small backpack. He says altogether they weigh about 20 pounds.

"And you'll be able to tell if people got something out of it by the amount of sweat, tears and puke that's laying on this floor when they're done," he says.

Not your typical way to celebrate Memorial Day.

"When we're out here where they gave their lives defending freedom, I think the best way we can show our support is to just, you know, go full-suck on this," he says.

Before the exercise regimen called Murph begins, Johnson and the others will pause for a moment.

"Typically, before we might gather up. We'll probably say something in remembrance of Lt. Michael Murphy," he says.

The workout will take about 40 minutes. And no one checks to make sure everyone completes each pullup, pushup and squat. Johnsons says they make a pledge of sorts.

"You go, 'Hey, remember what we're doing this ... for, remember who we're doing it for. So don't cheat yourself, and don't cheat them,' " Johnson says.

It's a pledge by those who continue to serve here, and who still head into those hills to fight.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Here in the U.S., this is a day of parades, barbecues and patriotic speeches. Some people are participating in ceremonies at military cemeteries. Others are quietly visiting the graves of family members or friends. Meanwhile, today in Afghanistan, at a corner of Bagram Air Base, troops remembered the fallen in a different way. NPR's Tom Bowman has that story.

STAFF SERGEANT MICHAEL JOHNSON: Right now, I'm just doing pull-ups.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Staff Sergeant Michael Johnson exercises under a long steel framework set on a wooden platform. It looks like a giant industrial jungle gym. Above his head are pull-up bars and rings. A climbing rope is off to one side.

And it's here where he and dozens of other soldiers and sailors will remember the fallen, just after sunrise. They'll all take part in a grueling exercise regimen, part of CrossFit, the popular high-intensity workout program.

JOHNSON: This one specifically, the Memorial Day Murph, is to honor Lieutenant Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was killed in action here in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Killed somewhere in those craggy, snow-capped peaks that loom over the base to the east. Lieutenant Murphy was leading a patrol back in June 2005. His unit came under intense Taliban fire, and they found shelter behind some rocks.

Lieutenant Murphy exposed himself to enemy fire so he could find a better position to send a distress signal. He was killed and became the first American in Afghanistan to be awarded the Medal of Honor. So today, Memorial Day, Sergeant Johnson will lead a CrossFit workout called Murph.

JOHNSON: The runner will start off by running one mile. A good mile, a good average mile, is going to be around 6:30 to seven minutes. He'll do 100 pull-ups, then 200 pushups, then 300 squats.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Johnson is 25 and on his third tour of duty. He's short with a steady gaze and thick arms. A tattoo of a shark biting an octopus curls around one bicep. This workout might be hard for anyone in really good shape. These soldiers will make it harder. Sergeant Johnson and the others will wear their body armor, including ammunition magazines and a small backpack. How much does this all weigh?

JOHNSON: Combined, probably weighs about 20 pounds, and that's what we really want to push for is about 20 pounds in addition to your body weight. And you'll be able to tell if people got something out of it by the amount of sweat, tears and puke that's laying on this floor when they're done.

BOWMAN: Not your typical way to celebrate Memorial Day.

JOHNSON: When we're out here, you know, where they gave their lives defending freedom, I think the best way we can show our support is to just, you know, go full-suck on this.

BOWMAN: And before the exercise regimen called Murph begins, Sergeant Johnson and the others will pause for a moment.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Typically, before we might gather up, we'll probably say something in remembrance of Lieutenant Michael Murphy.

BOWMAN: The workout will take about 40 minutes, and no one checks to make sure everyone completes each pull-up and sit-up and squat.

JOHNSON: It's kind of a - sort of a pledge. You go, hey, remember what we're doing this wad for, remember who we're doing it for. So don't cheat yourself, and don't cheat them.

BOWMAN: A pledge by those who continue to serve here and who still head into those hills to fight. Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.