Inspired by the experiences of Craig Burnette
Connecting Through Geography and Pain
by Kristine Hartvigsen
“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”
–Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War
Craig Burnette understands that a soldier need not have stepped onto an active battlefield, dodged live enemy rounds or been physically injured to experience the tremendous pain, loss, guilt, anxiety, and depression that come with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A strong example can be found in the story of a Vietnam veteran whom Burnette once counseled. The veteran described the emotional trauma he had experienced serving the U.S. Army Security Agency (ASA) in the 1960s under the Lyndon Johnson Administration.
At the time, the ASA also handled switchboard operations for the White House. On duty in that capacity, the veteran who was confiding in Burnette described hearing the quiver, the choking back of tears, the long exhalations, the extreme anguish in voices reaching out through phone lines at all hours.
“He would get a phone call in the middle of the night and answer it on behalf of the White House. And it would be some parents or a wife who had been notified that day, by telegram or personnel officer, that their son had been killed in Vietnam,” Burnette recalled. “These folks wanted to talk to the president. Now this guy’s 19 or 20 years old and has had no briefing on how to handle something like this. He couldn’t connect them with the president, so he sat and listened to these folks. And they would describe their son and how he was and what he was like in high school. And they’d tell him what he looked like, and if he was an athlete or he got into trouble with the law and was going to either go into the military or go to jail. They’d tell him that their son was a Boy Scout or that he and his wife just had a baby, and on and on.”
The voices haunted that troubled veteran for years, but he wasn’t certain his trauma really “counted.”
“This man took all those stories with him when he left the service,” Burnette said. “When he got back home, he started dreaming about these folks, even having never seen them. He would conjure up their images, and they would pass before his face. This is why he’s constantly awake. So he would numb himself so he could sleep by smoking dope or drinking a lot. He would numb himself so he could sleep. Then he’d start having nightmares and feeling guilty because he had survived all of this. And he knew all of these people who hadn’t survived and how it impacted those families.”
When the vet first entered the counseling center, before he had shared one word of his experience, he had told Burnette he wasn’t sure if he actually deserved to be there, receiving any sort of help. “I never set one foot in [the]country in [of]Vietnam,” he had told Burnette.
“The man had just about every symptom you can think of for the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had never been out of the United States,” Burnette said. “So, you know, when people talk about PTSD, they need to realize that it doesn’t always have to be experiencing the trauma directly. It could be once removed, being exposed to the people who have been traumatized so much that it starts impacting you.”
Burnette certainly knew about being ‘in country.’ In 1969, he was a platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne leading missions in a place called the Iron Triangle to try to keep the North Vietnamese combatants out of Saigon. Located between the Saigon River on the west and the Tinh River on the east, just 25 miles north of Saigon, the region was called the Iron Triangle because it was a Viet Minh stronghold throughout the war. “It was a pretty big hot spot,” he said without going into detail.
When he got back from Vietnam, Burnette, who already had a bachelor’s degree in psychology, returned to college and earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In 1979, he began working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We were pretty much telling the VA what they were doing behind the walls of the hospital was wrong. ‘You’re overmedicating us, and you don’t believe in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder,’” Burnette recalled telling officials at the VA. So they opened up Vet Centers for Vietnam veterans coming in off the street. They were storefront centers, not in hospitals.
At these centers, veterans could be seen by qualified counselors and receive support through a number of regular talk therapy groups. Burnette worked for nearly 30 years within the VA system and retired in 2011. What had kept Burnette working for the VA for so long, he noted, was the proverbial brotherhood of soldiers.
“When I was in Vietnam, I tried my best to take care of my men, and, thank goodness, they took care of me,” he said.
It was extremely important to Burnette that the Vet Centers be places of acceptance, that they were “safe” spaces for veterans to unburden themselves in an environment of compassion and understanding.
“If you fell off the wagon or forgot some techniques for handling your PTSD, we were not going to throw you out,” he said. “It meant that we weren’t going to label them ‘noncompliant,’ which a lot of VA folks would do. They could come back to us. … If you came to a Vet Center, you were welcome. You were welcomed in without any judgment whatsoever.”
As Burnette labored to provide valuable mental health support services for Vietnam veterans, he found that it was not a one-sided sort of giving.
“I found that, as I was trying to help them, they (in turn) were giving back to me, even when they didn’t know that,” he said. “When I could see them kick their destructive habits — whatever they happened to be — when I could see them making progress in dealing with their post-traumatic stress disorder or their depression or their bipolar or whatever it happened to be, it was so worthwhile and so rewarding.”
Burnette noted that groups were formed for specific needs, such as those struggling with substance abuse, those who were dual-diagnosed, even for significant others or family members of vets.
“We treated anyone who was impacted in a veteran’s life,” he said. “I had mothers and fathers sitting in therapy groups trying to understand what was going on with their son or daughter. I had aunts and uncles. I had cousins. I had lovers. You name it. As far as we were concerned, we called them ‘significant others,’ and they were welcome in our center to talk about what might be going on.”
The aforementioned veteran who had never experienced combat was welcomed into the combat group.
“I didn’t care whether they were ambushed or shot or did whatever they did. The man was suffering symptoms, and the guys in the combat group said he had valid reason to be there,” Burnette said. “They validated what was going on with him, and that was important.”
Many of the groups met at night for the convenience of vets who worked full-time during the day. Burnette felt it was critical to have operational hours beyond the basic 9 to 5. The sessions lasted as long as they needed to last, regardless of whether it was one hour or four hours.
One day, a woman visited the center who Burnette remembered as “Miss Macmillan.” She and her husband, who was a veteran liaison to a senator, were mourning their son, an Air Force Academy graduate who was a navigator in a Special Ops unit and was killed in the Iranian desert during an aborted hostage rescue attempt in September of 1979. He was their only son.
Miss Macmillan wanted to find out more about what the center was doing for Vietnam veterans. She had found a Gold Star Mothers chapter in Knoxville, but it wasn’t very active. She was building the chapter back up and had added about 10-12 women, all of whom (except Miss Macmillan) had lost sons in Vietnam.
“She came down and asked me if they could meet at the Vet Center because all had lost sons in Vietnam. And I said, ‘Of course, you can,’” Burnette said. “But I was worried because, on the walls of our Vet Center, they had pictures and memorabilia. We had a pair of jungle boots and a helmet, and things like that. I was hoping that wouldn’t upset the ladies too much.”
Soon, the Gold Star Mothers from Knoxville began meeting at the Vet Center. Before long, they asked Burnette if there was anything they could do for the center and its veterans. He noted that a local veterans group donated coffee, but they didn’t really need much. So the women offered to bake cookies and cakes and bring them one night for the veterans. Burnette said he wasn’t going to turn down cookies, and the ladies went to work creating all kinds of baked goods to bring in.
“The ladies knew what time we met and timed their visit toward the end of the session. They prepared a table of goodies so it was ready for us when we finished,” Burnette recalled. “The ladies stayed there to help. So we’re standing around and having cookies, and the veterans were thanking them. Then I asked the ladies to introduce themselves and tell us a little bit about their sons and tell if they remember the unit he served with. These ladies, of course, they had it down pat: ‘I’m Jane Smith and my son was with such and such airborne and was killed on such and such a date.’ And they went around the room taking turns introducing themselves.”
Burnette started to watch the body language of the veterans and how they shifted on their feet. So he asked them to do the same thing, introduce themselves and share their service information. Burnette went first. Soon a huge, burly, very rough-looking veteran began to tear up.
“He was a 60-gunner, one of those tough-ass guys. I mean, he took no crap. He was just as tough as nails,” Burnette said. “The conversation got to him. He had been in the same unit as one of the women’s sons, though not at the same time. … He just barely got his name out. I think he said he was First Cavalry, First Cav. And he started crying. He just started breaking down, and the little lady whose son had been in the First Cav came across the room and started hugging him. It was one of the most incredible showings of love I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Before long, it seemed that all of the vets started crying. They were holding one another and basically formed a huddle that became a kind of group hug.
“It was the most amazing experience at the center up to that time and maybe since,” he said. “I bawled my heart out. Yeah, I’m a therapist bawling in front of my patients, and I didn’t give a shit. It was that powerful. It was beyond compare. Here were hardcore combat veterans who have lived with life and death and seeing their buddies die.”
As it turns out, Burnette learned that one of the ladies had a son who served with the “Big Red One” in Vietnam in the same area of time he was there. He recalled that the Big Red One had been on his right flank. He knew their area of operations. Of course, he did not know the lady’s son. However remote, it was a connection. And all connections were impactful. He felt confident that the experience helped the most hardcore vets to move further along in acknowledging their own pain.
“You know, you’re 6’3” and 220 pounds, tough as nails, and you’re sobbing like a little baby into a little lady who’s maybe 5’4” who’s holding on to you. And if it weren’t for her holding on to you, you’d be falling to the floor,” he said. “That was just one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. It will be with me until the day I die.”
The Gold Star Mothers continued to visit and bring treats periodically after that. Burnette says it was a very healing experience for himself and healing for the veterans as well. In fact, many told him it not only helped but moved them further along their healing journey than they ever thought they would get.
The final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021, felt like a sucker punch for many vets, including Vietnam vets. The way it played out pretty closely paralleled what unfolded in the 1975 Fall of Saigon.
“I’m very in tune with what I believe some veterans were going through when they watched Kabul fall,” he said. “In 1969 or 1970, I could have told anybody who had the guts to come down to our level on the ground and ask ‘How’s it going?’ that we’re fighting pretty well, but when you turn it over to the majority of the South Vietnamese Army, the North will walk all over them. I mean, it was five years before the actual downfall, and I have a feeling there were some Afghanistan vets and others who knew that would happen all along as well. But, of course, higher-ups don’t walk in our boots. They think they do, but they don’t. I was in the Central Highlands training South Vietnamese and knowing that, at some point, those guys were probably going to get their asses kicked. I loved them. They were good people, but they just lost their will to win as far as I was concerned.”