Countless tributes have been written about the heroic service of our men and women in uniform. However, few testimonies exist to witness the selfless service these courageous warriors provide when they return to civilian life. Lessons learned amid the demands of war produce a pattern that imprints on others. Such profound influence may carry through generations in the lives of those who are lucky enough to meet them along their post-war path.
Growing up in the Atomic Age gave me the opportunity to live and work alongside numerous veterans, and all have a story to tell. Although some find it difficult to discuss, each of these individuals share their story through actions, choices and example. Meet three outstanding examples of service.
• Kenneth P. Burbidge Jr. served at Kimpo Air Base, Korea, as a medical corpsman in the 4th Medical Group, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, smack in the middle of MiG Alley. His 10 months included assignment as an air rescue medic aboard a Sikorsky H-19 helicopter. His duties included jumping into the churning Yellow Sea to recover downed pilots. He survived, returned home and started a family, of which I am the oldest. Dad remained haunted by his experience. Looking back, his struggles with alcohol addiction and anger flagged possible post-traumatic stress disorder. However, it was never diagnosed or treated. Yet, amid his personal trials, he stood tall — making something of his life by becoming a pillar in the community, successful businessman and loving father.
He was my hero, friend, trusted confidant, greatest fan, hunting buddy and ardent supporter. I knew he believed in me. It made all the difference during those tumultuous teenage years when believing in anything was difficult. He taught me how to work hard and never give up and exemplified it by how he lived. He was patient but would not tolerate an uncaring attitude or half-hearted effort.
After battling his demons for nearly 30 years, he and my mother delivered their most enduring lesson as they overcame and found personal peace. I remember the day he asked for my support as he entered a rehab program. The pattern set remains real today, in my life and the lives of my children and grandchildren, though he has been gone for 19 years.
• During the mid-1970s, I spent two years as a volunteer proselyting missionary under the direction of retired Air Force Col. Allen C. Rozsa. His service spanned World War II, Koreaand Vietnam. His career began piloting B-24 bombers against the Third Reich out of Italy. Twenty-five-plus years in uniform included assignments piloting developmental test and top secret surveillance aircraft, Cold War B-52 SAC missions and the trusty DC-3 in Vietnam. We first met following his final service rotation in the Pentagon.
It was an honor to serve as his personal assistant for over eight months during our two year association. He and his angelic wife, Dawna, endeavored to relay their life lessons and the reality of a loving God to this naïve 20-something and hundreds of others. We always knew that our meetings could be spiced up by getting him to tell flying stories. He eagerly took the bait, providing rare first-hand insight into a world none of us could comprehend. I learned what it meant to become a responsible and productive adult. He taught us how discipline and structure strengthen personal foundations.
My disjointed search for meaning became clear and purposeful under his tutelage. I came to understand the delicate balance between exercising discipline in setting dependable spiritual and temporal patterns and extending kindness and compassion. The opportunity to cross this veteran’s path added important building blocks to the cornerstones laid by my father.
• I have known this third veteran my entire life. As my father’s only sibling, his age exactly split the difference between my father and me. He was the older brother I never had. John M. Burbidge served as a career Army officer flying fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. For 12 months from 1969-70, he served a tour in Vietnam in D Troop, 2nd Squadron of the 1st Calvary Regiment. His unit included Huey, Cobra attack and Loach observation helicopters. Their primary focus was air maintenance and aircraft recovery. The recovery and observation missions often drew high volumes of enemy fire. His career proceeded with numerous foreign and domestic postings culminating as a lieutenant colonel assigned as Pentagon staff.
John’s personal influence reached its zenith during my darkest hours, brought on by a difficult divorce and the need to reconstruct my life. During this time, we often sat together discussing formidable challenges with children and my former spouse. He mixed his personal love with vast experience in counseling and command. John helped give me the hope and strength necessary to pick myself off the deck and walk forward again. I understood that my life was not a dead end, rather I stood at the dawn of a new adventure.
It seems whenever I’ve had mountains to climb, God has placed a faithful veteran at my right hand to identify unseen threats and keep me on task. Life is messy and while it doesn’t push you to the limit every day, there are times when you must reach deep into the toolbox. Sometimes even that is not enough.
During extreme ordeals along the path I, like many others, have been blessed to find one of those great Americans ready to serve again. They comprise that irreplaceable group whose heroism has extended far beyond the battlefield into the lives of all they touch. My life is richer and its meaning deeper for knowing these esteemed veterans.
This Veterans Day, take a moment to pay tribute to those who continue to serve even after taking off the uniform.
Clark Burbidge is the author of the Giants in the Land trilogy, StarPassage series and "A Piece of Silver: A Story of Christ." He and his wife, Leah, live near Salt Lake City where they enjoy their blended family of 10 children and six grandchildren.