Hear Her Roar: Colonel Linda Strite Murane
by Christine Fontana Wegmann, J.D. ‘97
Hard Core Determination and Unshakeable Dedication in the Face of Hardship Drive Colonel Murnane to Persist in Kicking Adversity and Gender Discrimination to the Curb
It takes one glance at the impressive resume of Colonel Linda Strite Murnane, U.S. Air Force, Retired, to notice that it reads similarly to an outline for a high-concept story, reminiscent of all the international intrigue and legal mystery of a Tom Clancy or John Grisham novel, tempered with a touch of Lifetime movie drama. Indeed, not many can claim that their career has included advising the Argentine military on issues of “disappeared persons” or lending support in The Hague to the judiciary presiding at the war crime trials of six associates of Slobodan Milošević who were accused of atrocities in Kosovo.
Because her family lacked financial resources and didn’t readily support her decision to attend college, the odds were that Murnane would never see her name scripted across a college degree much less a law degree. “My parents made it clear that they’d support my brothers in college, but my sister and I were on our own,” says Murnane, who in 1974, after working her way through three years of college, enlisted as an Airman Basic in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 22. “I was working full time and didn’t qualify for many grants and by the end of my junior year I ran out of money,” says Murnane. “I was working processing VA benefits for people coming back from Vietnam and thought, ‘I’ve got to get some of this GI Bill stuff to finish college.’” And because she was married to a man on active military duty at the time, Murnane knew plenty about the Funded Legal Education Program and her focus remained on securing a spot in it to attain financing for law school.
Murnane deployed as a journalist with the Air Force at the end of the Vietnam War to cover the return of the Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. “I lived at the camp and showered in the field, and there were not many women out there,” says Murnane. Her stories were picked up by the national wires and a photo she took was nominated for an award. She was selected for the Bootstrap program, known today as the Air Force Educational Leave of Absence Program, earning her B.A. in Political Science from the Christopher Newport College of the College of William and Mary and graduating with honors.
After being selected to become an officer, Murnane was stationed in Biloxi and went back into journalism, working as the Chief of Community Relations for Keesler Air Force Base. She took night classes at the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach to keep her study skills up and around the time of finals, Murnane discovered she was accepted to the night program at Loyola University College of Law but not to the Funded Legal Education Program.
Murnane got the opportunity to speak with a brigadier general about fortifying her application package. “I said, ‘General, what am I missing? I’ve worked my way through college, I enlisted, I deployed, I’m a second lieutenant doing all these high profile things,’ and he said, ‘Linda, the one thing we don’t see in your package is commitment. If you had gone to the U.S. Air Force Academy we would know you were committed.’ I said, ‘General, that’s interesting; women weren’t allowed to go to the academy because it was male-only!’ He just said, ‘Well, there is that.’”
Although Murnane’s package dilemma was an anatomical one, she remained diligent in pursuit of her legal studies. After work she would drive 200 miles round-trip from Biloxi to New Orleans four nights a week to attend her Civil Law curriculum classes at Loyola. “They wanted commitment so by God, I gave them commitment.”
Murnane took a leave of absence from Loyola after one semester to focus on her job promotion to Center Protocol Officer and to see if she’d get selected for the Funded Legal Education Program. She finally did, and on the same day in February of 1978, Murnane discovered she was pregnant with her first child. “Back then, they had yet to send a pregnant woman to a graduate program. You got kicked out if you were pregnant,” but the rules changed slightly around that time to allow pregnant women to stay under certain circumstances.
As expected, the Air Force responded negatively to Murnane’s pregnancy. “They said, ‘You cannot go to the Funded Legal Education Program because you have been diagnosed with what we call an enlarged uterus,’” says Murnane. “I was only one out of seven people in the entire U.S. Air Force to get this spot, and now they were going to drop me because I was having a baby.” Fortunately Murnane’s boss, two-star General John Pustay went to bat for her with the Air Force. “He told me, ‘I will bust my sword over this. I don’t care that no other woman had done this before, they just don’t know you and I have no doubt that you will succeed.”
But the uphill climb for Murnane to achieve her law degree got even more tedious. Two days after she started law school again at Loyola in the Common Law curriculum, she discovered her then-husband, now deceased, paralyzed on the living room floor at their home in Diamondhead. “He was walking one minute and not the next,” said Murnane, who was eight months pregnant. Murnane moved into the lodging facility next to the hospital her husband was at while he went through multiple surgeries. Murnane kept going to class and ten days after her daughter was born by C-section the entire family was released from their hospital stays on the same day. Amazingly, that semester Murnane won the American Jurisprudence Award for Academic Excellence in Constitutional Law. “I was reading my con law book while I was on the labor and delivery table,” says Murnane.
Because of her husband’s immobility, Murnane was now driving 250 miles a day five days a week thanks to the offer from a dear friend in Biloxi to watch her baby while she attended law school. She cared for her husband in the morning and at night, but during her third semester, the Air Force medically discharged him. And their daughter had been in the hospital with many issues since she was born, including three eye operations before she was eighteen months old.
Murnane finished the semester at Loyola and relocated back home to Ohio to attend the University of Cincinnati College of Law in order to bring some semblance of normalcy to her family. In Ohio, Murnane’s second daughter was born legally blind and deaf and remained hospitalized for a year. “Because CHAMPUS was an 80/20 provider, my unpaid medical that year was $23,000 and my salary that year as a first lieutenant was $19,000. I asked the Air Force if I could take a law clerk position and they said no, so I took a job as a janitor. I would leave law school, go see my husband, my daughter Christina and my daughter Rachel who were all at different hospitals, go clean five banks then go home and study.” Despite her numerous hardships, Murnane was honored with an Urban Morgan Institute International Human Rights Fellow.
Finally armed with her law degree after graduating early from school in December 1980, Murnane honored her commitment to the Air Force and served from 1981 until 2004. She worked as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) from 1981 to 1994, going from Travis Air Force Base in California as an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate, to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio as the Chief of Military Justice, to becoming the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate at Randolf Air Force Base in Texas. After this, Murnane’s international military career came to fruition, starting with her 18-month tenure as Chief of Criminal Law for all U.S. Forces in Japan at U.S. Forces Japan 5th Air Force at Yokota Air Base, then 18 months as Chief of International Law, Operations Law and Civil Law for U.S. Forces Japan. “I did a lot of international and Geneva Convention work,” says Murnane. “I wanted to focus on international human rights, and what I went through as a female in the Air Force really fueled my passion for civil rights.”
Murnane then went to Germany as a Deputy Staff Judge Advocate at Ramstein Air Base, which was the largest legal base outside of the U.S. then on to Bitburg Air Base to become the Staff Judge Advocate. In 1994, Murnane was coming up for Colonel, but she really wanted to be a military judge. “The Air Force gave me a say in it,” says Murnane, who was only one of two women at the time to score a Military Judge appointment. She presided over federal trials at the Central Circuit at Randolf Air Force Base as a Military Judge and then at the Eastern Circuit at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. as a Military Trial Judge.
In 1998, Murnane got promoted to Colonel. “I’m not exactly sure how that happened because I was competing against so many other talented people,” says Murnane, “but I had some publications and was very active in the American Bar Association and the National Association of Women Judges. I was doing high profile things the Air Force may have noticed.”
Murnane headed back to Ramstein in 2000 to become the Chief Circuit Military Judge for the European Circuit, and her jurisdiction consisted of all of Europe, Southwest Asia and Northern Africa. Murnane was divorced and remarried to Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Murnane, U.S. Air Force, Retired, by this time. “He was stationed in Aviano, Italy, so with my great driving record I would try to make it once a month down to Italy, driving through the Alps to see him.”
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Murnane became responsible for the first trials of U.S. Air Force members in the war zones in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and her jurisdiction included Afghanistan, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “Our courts were held in tents,” says Murnane. “My chambers in Qatar were a camouflage mosquito net in an outdoor area and my courtroom was a silo where planes were usually kept. There wasn’t internet access so you had to really know the law before you went to trial.”
Murnane was briefed on what would be offensive in predominately Muslim countries each time she deployed to the Middle East. “Although I’m not a reader, we were told not to bring any Playboy or Penthouse magazines,” says Murnane, a practicing Catholic. “They were also vehemently opposed to Christian Faith articles. I was given my father’s St. Christopher medal after he died and I wore it every day, so I put it somewhere that I was pretty sure if a customs agent touched me he’d lose a hand!” Incidentally, Murnane’s daughters’ high school graduation photos, where the girls wore typical drapes for their professional portraits, were confiscated as pornography in Qatar.
In 2001, while still the Chief Circuit Military Judge in Europe, Murnane was invited by the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies to go to on the first U.S. military assistance mission to Rwanda following the sanction period imposed by the U.S. after the genocide. “There were human skulls stacked up as far as you could see and body parts all over,” said Murnane, who was there to train Tutsi and Hutu Rwandans in the military on topics of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. She arrived in Rwanda on the day that Paul Kagame was inaugurated as president, and hotels were deemed unsafe for the team so they stayed in the attaches’ residence on the embassy compound.
Murnane never let fear stand in her way, instructing individuals who had been committing genocide on one another just a few years earlier how to explain their stories instead of kidnapping journalists. “One of the things I said in 2008 during my acceptance speech for the Margaret Brent Women of Achievement Award from the ABA was, ‘I think I won this because I just never learned to say ‘Gosh, I don’t think so, that sounds dangerous.’”
In 2004 after 30 years of service in the Air Force, Murnane retired. The following day, Murnane went to work as the Felony Prosecutor in Brown County, Ohio, but kept thinking about a calling she had felt while in Rwanda, so in February, 2005 she became the Executive Director for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights in Louisville. In early 2006, Murnane got an invitation to come to The Hague for 90 days to take over the Complex Litigation Chamber of the War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Murnane could not refuse the offer. Her husband Kevin, who had just retired from the Air Force and was working for Humana, quit to accompany her to The Hague. “I’m married to the best guy in the world who has given me the greatest support ever. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Linda, can you save the world from someplace where you can flush toilets?’ I told him, ‘They have toilets you can flush there!’” She took a leave of absence from the Human Rights Commission but continued to operate it for seven months from the Netherlands after she got off work thanks to the international time difference. She stayed at The Hague as Senior Legal Officer for two years, assisting with high profile cases such as the Milan Milutinović trial and the pre-trial phase of the case of Radovan Karadzic, often dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by Western media.
With both daughters in college, Murnane needed a more stable job. She was hired as the Senior International Attorney for the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies in Newport, Rhode Island, helping to develop human rights training programs for teams that would go to emerging democracies. “I went to places like Liberia and Zambia with them. I believe that there’s no such thing as ‘can’t.’”
Six months later Murnane got a call from the Tribunal offering her a position as Chief of Court Management and Support Services for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia where she was responsible for ensuring an efficient operation of the court proceedings. “Basically I was the clerk of court for the Tribunal,” says Murnane. In addition to that job, she wore dual hats, becoming the Acting Head of Chambers for three months, then the Acting Deputy Registrar for four and a half months.
Murnane stayed at the Tribunal until December of 2012 but resigned after the UN refused to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by senior officials preying on vulnerable women. “What’s key is that if I can’t change that kind of behavior, I won’t condone it in my silence.” Murnane came back home to Ohio thinking she’d retire, but seven days later she got an offer to become a judicial bailiff for Judge Anne Taylor at the Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus. “Judge Taylor is an amazing woman and she respects the service of military personnel.”
Although Murnane didn’t graduate from Loyola, she is thankful for her time at the College of Law. “I wouldn’t be where I am today but for the Loyola night program. Loyola gave me the opportunity to prove to the Air Force I was committed. I appreciate that the quality of education and the solid foundation I got. My Constitutional Law class taught by Dean McCauley (sp?) became so incredibly valuable when I was working in a hybrid court setting in the International Criminal Tribunal, where there’s a mix of civil and common law.”
Fittingly, Murnane was on a panel regarding Sexual Assault in the Military in New Orleans in October 2013 for the National Association of Women Judges Conference. “There’s no question that one sexual assault is one too many,” says Murnane. “It’s indescribable to talk about the pain of the victims who feel they have no redress or voice. I was convinced early in my military career that women were there as play toys for the men who were there to fight and fly. When I became a JAG I was very active in speaking on issues on domestic violence and sexual assault. I prosecuted cases on sexual assault and volunteered to take cases that others may not have taken.” Murnane’s daughters, both who hold Master’s Degrees, and her grandchildren met her during her New Orleans trip.
Judge Mary Hotard Becnel of the 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard, Louisiana, who was a co-chair of the conference, was Murnane’s classmate at Loyola. “Linda is one of the most inspiring women I know,” says Becnel. “From the time we were pregnant law students, when Linda was commuting daily to Loyola from Keesler Air Force Base to the present, she continues to impress and inspire me and others with her determination, courage and accomplishments.”
After an illustrious legal career that has taken her across the globe and earned her a plethora of accolades and awards for championing concerns such as human rights and gender equality, Murnane is very content working for Judge Taylor in Ohio. “I get to see my kids regularly and I’m living in the same state as my husband. Nothing is more important than my family, and at some point I just want to sit on my porch and watch the squirrels collect nuts.” (Incidentally, Murnane’s family includes a foster daughter whom she raised since the age of thirteen, who is now a child and family counselor in San Diego).
By virtue of her world travels, Murnane feels blessed to have experienced marvelous adventures that many won’t have in their lifetimes, such as the time she trekked to see the mountain gorillas of Rwanda studied by zoologist Dian Fossey. And her undying dedication to gender equality has helped to transform the military’s treatment of women, paving the paths for female lawyers to rise in the ranks and cementing her hero status amongst her contemporaries.
“People might think it’s crazy but I feel I’ve been called to do things in life, not in a loud, shouting voice but in a whisper. I’ll go where I’m called to serve. I listen to the whisper.” It’s safe to say that if Murnane catches wind of a whisper while squirrel-watching on her porch, she’ll likely respond with a roar.