Sunday, June 05, 2011

Major General R.H. (Johnny) Burris, USAF Retired.

I met Gen. Burris once. He visited our house in Ft. Worth back in the early '80s. He was one of my dad's old commanders, and the source of many great stories. He and his wife Jo were staying with other old service chums of dads, the McSparrins, and they'd all come to the house for an informal party.

I remember him distinctly. He was a jolly little guy, sittin' on the side of my bed, a drink in one hand, checking out my new aquarium. I was in college then, and someone had given me a Siamese Fighting Fish. I'd gone out and gotten a ten gallon tank and was buyin' other fish to put in it, just to see the belligerent little dude chase 'em around the tank.

To me, the General was mostly indistinguishable from any of the other friends my dad had accumulated during his almost 33 year career in the Air Force. Dad told me he'd started out as an enlisted guy and worked his way up the ladder. He'd been a Staff Sargent Gunner in a B-17, serving in the 8th Air Force, 486 bomb Group, 833 Bomb Squadron during the Second World War.

Mom remembers now that dad always spoke highly of Gen. Burris. He respected the fact that he'd risen up through the ranks, served bravely in the war, and that he'd been a great boss to work for. I wish I knew some of the old stories that dad and his buddies laughed about back then, but I was too young to realize how short a time I'd have to get them down on paper.

Dad was still too vigorous back in the early '80s, playin' golf three or four times a week (even with his new knee), for me to think about him passing and the importance of saving that history. By the time I started asking dad to write those old memories down, many of them had faded, and he was unable or unwilling to do it. I think he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to remember it all. I'll always regret not forcing him, or tricking him into doing it, but there you go.

What brought all this up?

Mom got a letter a few days ago, addressed to dad, from Gen. Burris' brother Tom. The letter told us that the General had passed away in October of 2010. His brother, who also served in the Air Force (his older brother swore him into the service in 1951), is trying to get his brother's old friends to tell him some old stories about the General. He says he has his 201 file, but needs some old stories from his friends. He wants his kids and grand kids to have a full history of his brother's life.

Mom showed me the letter when I went over there Saturday evening. I immediately remembered the name, and that long ago day in my room. But mom couldn't remember any of Dad's old stories. She just remembers the deep respect and affection that dad held for the General.

So, I took the letter with me, telling mom that I'd send the man an email, responding to his questions. After sending the email, with my curiosity energized, I Googled the General, looking to see what I could find on the net. The search took me to a book, Air Force Gunners, page 135. What I found there knocked me out.

Apparently, Gen. Burris left a note at the Vietnam Memorial Wall on July 16th, 1993. Here's the text of his note, with his punctuation and capitalization, copied from that book page.

"Bud, your mother and I are here, with your friends from the Air Force Gunners Association. We're here to pay our respects and to remember.

We've been told lately that we should put aside the memories of Vietnam and forget for the sake of harmony.

In behalf of all the Veterans of Vietnam that I have had the privilege to speak to and all those that cannot speak for themselves, I have a message. We came back from hell and you spit on us. You looked upon the face of treason and you turned your head. You brought us back in body bags. You assaulted us in the Colleges and Universities. You gave solace to the enemy and thereby put many more names on the Wall. You do high honor to those who would not serve and for all that you ask us to forget. Well, I'll tell you. Here's my message. WE'LL FORGET, JUST AS SOON AS THE FALLING RAIN, LIKE MOTHERS TEARS WASH ALL THOSE NAMES OFF THE WALL."

I was 14 years old when the war ended. I can only imagine what it must be like to look on that black reflective surface and see the names of old comrades or family members staring back at you, and to know from your own experiences the way this country's government, the media and many of the mindless protesters shit all over you. To serve your country and your brothers and sisters with honor, and then be so utterly disrespected, and then for those who were some of the worst offenders to tell you to forgive and forget... Bullshit! I'll never forget, and I didn't even serve. I just grew up watching it all happen on television.

This country is poorer with each passing day. Every day, on average, we lose something like two thousand tough old bastards. Men like my dad and Gen. Burris, who served honorably and never expected anything more than an acknowledging smile and nod for it, and to live a good life, enjoying the freedom they'd fought to protect. Those men and women, who'd grown up during the depression and served in at least one, if not three or four wars, knew the cost of securing freedom, and had too much integrity to ever think of running away when their name was called.

There are some who wonder if this country can still produce such people. Living here in Killeen, surrounded by young people who have served through multiple deployments, in multiple wars, I know we do. These kids serve today with the same honor that I used to see in my dad and his friends. It warms my heart to know that we still produce men and women with that kind of courage.

So, thank you General Burris. Thank you for your service. I wish I'd gotten to know you better. And thanks to all you others too. Cheers.

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