Jefferson Awards: Fellow soldiers are Robert D. Burke's top priority

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At last year's POW/MIA vigil at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, a college student walked by the somber spectacle of Vietnam veterans paying their respects and had this to say:

"Why don't you people give this up already? That was 40 years ago. You're not going to find these people."

He said it to Rose Mary Burke, wife of Robert "Butch" Burke, vice president of the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Inc.

She was stunned by the cluelessness of the comment and later told her husband about it.

As a former combat engineer who boxed in the Army, he might have lost his temper at one time over a comment like that.

This is a man who, when he came home from the war in 1967, led a group of vets onto the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University campuses to protest the showing of North Vietnamese propaganda films. There were, he recalls, a few fights.

This is also a man who, at age 50 in 1995, got into a street brawl with a 23-year-old punk while walking to the MIA vigil in full uniform when the event was held at Point State Park.

But that was then.

He's 68 now and mellowed -- at least a bit.

"You still get angry, but it's just the way it is [in society]," he says. "It's why the world is so screwed up."

He's not getting into street battles anymore, but Mr. Burke continues to fight for fellow Vietnam veterans who struggle to cope with what they endured in a war that America would like to forget.

Vietnam Veterans Inc. has shrunk from its peak of 1,000 members in the 1980s to about 300, but Mr. Burke still volunteers his time for many causes.

In addition to setting up the vigil, he organizes the honor guard that marches in parades and serves in funerals for VVI members; helps raise money at an annual golf outing for Sharing and Caring, which hosts a river cruise for disabled vets; buys and delivers food to the Shepherd's Heart shelter in the Hill District with cash donated by VVI and individuals; delivers donated clothing to Shepherd's Heart; and oversees the production of VVI's newsletter, Homefront.

Because of his service, he has been selected as one of six finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer among 47 Jefferson Award for Public Service recipients. The winner will be announced at an April 29 ceremony at Carnegie Music Hall and will represent the Pittsburgh region this summer at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

A taciturn sort, Mr. Burke was a little uncomfortable in being nominated for an award because he says lots of veterans help him.

"I don't want to be singled out," he says. "I'm lucky, I came home. I've got a lot of anger yet, but I've got to give something back. That's what all of us volunteers are doing, they're giving something back."

His neighbor in Brentwood, Allen Murphy, 66, nominated him. In a country that seems to increasingly honor the superficial, he says Mr. Burke volunteers his time without fanfare.

"It's time he was recognized," he says. "He really treasures that he was able to serve in the military, and I think it brought him to a place in life to show him that helping others really felt good."

He regularly accompanies Mr. Burke and other vets to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Aspinwall to play dice and bingo with the men there to keep their minds active.

"We try to stimulate the men to feel a comradeship that they used to feel in the military," Mr. Murphy says.

Mr. Burke is "very instrumental in keeping everything together," says Bob Bonetti, a Brentwood neighbor who also visits the VA and works with Mr. Burke through Sharing and Caring, "because we're all starting to get over the hill. If it wasn't for him, none of this would happen."

He says Mr. Burke will drop everything to help someone.

"I had some heart problems. We had a big snow, and he came up here and shoveled my driveway," he says. "He's just that type of guy."

Mayoral candidate Jack Wagner, a Vietnam vet, has known Mr. Burke for 30 years and says local veterans respect him because he cares about them and he's not afraid to state his mind.

"He's feisty, he's passionate, and if you know Butchie, that's what comes out," he says. "He doesn't hold back his opinions."

The evolution from vet to volunteer took time. Mr. Burke came home from the war, went to work with Local 66 Operating Engineers and kept his experiences to himself.

But as America slowly came to grips with the Vietnam experience, Mr. Burke did, too. He joined VVI in 1988 and gradually became more involved in helping vets.

Part of his motivation, he says, is guilt. His job from 1965-67 was to build airstrips, hospitals, ammo depots and medical evacuation bases at Long Binh. He'd been shot at by snipers, but he was never in direct combat.

For a rough-housing South Side kid, it was tough to watch helicopters evacuate boys his age who'd been shot up in the jungle while he remained relatively safe. He chokes up at the memory of those young men.

"I was always a fighter," he says. "I always thought that should have been me."

Born in 1944 in California, Mr. Burke came to Pittsburgh as a toddler and was raised on the South Side by his stepfather after his parents divorced.

He graduated from South High, worked for a time at his stepfather's gas station and raised a lot of hell, wrecking two cars before he was 19.

"He was wild," says wife Rose Mary, who grew up in the same neighborhood.

He joined the Army a year out of high school, initially planning to be a paratrooper but ending up in construction at Long Binh, one of the largest U.S. bases in Vietnam.

By the time he came home in 1967, opposition to the war was in full swing. The protests angered him because he felt the soldiers bore the brunt while the leaders were to blame. He was particularly upset at anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman, who spoke at Pitt in 1970.

"I really hated that guy," he says.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Burke and his veteran friends even burned a North Vietnamese flag at Point State Park. The fall of Saigon in 1975 hurt every soldier, he says, and it still brings tears to his eyes.

But like other veterans, he put the war aside in later years as best he could and got on with his life, operating heavy equipment with Local 66 and raising a family in Brentwood. He is stepfather to Rose Mary's two children from her previous marriage to his late best friend, Josh; when Josh died in 1973, Mr. Burke married Rose Mary and raised the children as his own.

It wasn't until the TV series "Tour of Duty" hit the air in 1987 that he started to open up, Rose Mary says. She remembers him watching it obsessively and knew something was stirring in him.

"He had never talked about the war," she says. "It was like he had suppressed it until that show came out."

Now that he's retired, the VVI consumes his life.

"It's like a full-time job," says Rose Mary. "Our life revolves around him."

Mr. Burke sees a direct parallel between his war and the one in Iraq. Both were based on nebulous reasoning and neither had a clearly defined goal or end-game.

American soldiers, he says, will always do their duty as long as they feel their leaders are telling the truth. That didn't happen in Vietnam, he says, and it didn't happen in Iraq.

"Don't send us there on a lie," he says. "The soldiers always pay the price."


Torsten Ove: or 412-231-0132. First Published April 19, 2013 4:00 AM


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