ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – In 1961, John Michael Burke graduated high school and then joined the Marines. He wanted excitement; he wanted to see the world. He got his wish.
Before Burke’s 22-year career was over he would also serve in the Navy as a corpsman and in the Army as a military police officer.
Born in 1942, Burke was the oldest of eight children. With two brothers and five sisters, he said that except for low-waged labor work, entering the military was the only option for young men without college plans. He was optimistic and excited, however. Military life opened new doors and he enjoyed traveling, and experiencing new lifestyles and cultures.
The Marine Corps
He first joined the Marines as a machine gunner. He enjoyed life on the high seas, traveling on Navy transports for training to exotic places. He said that for the first time in his life, he had a purpose.
“I loved it except for when it stormed,” he said. “During one storm the ship took a 40-degree roll. That was no fun.”
Between 1961 and 1965 Burke visited or trained in Greece and France and throughout the Mediterranean region, and enjoyed the treasures of Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines.
He said Cuba was one of his favorite tours.
“Cuba was a great tour. There were plenty of clubs and plenty of things to learn about and do culture wise. And we never worried about running out of supplies because we were so close to Miami. Ships were always coming in.”
Burke was in Cuba in 1962 when everyone planning to leave the service was extended due to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, he recalled being on duty in a guard tower just over a year later when he learned about the Kennedy assassination.
The Army & heading to ‘Nam
Burke left the Marines in 1965 but after six months he was back in the military; this time with the Army as a 95B, military police officer. He said once recruiters learned he’d been a Marine gunner they said he was a “natural” for MP work.
He trained and went to school at Fort Dix and Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Things were heating up in Southeast Asia by then, and he said it was “pretty much a given” he’d end up in ‘Nam.
“It was 50-50,” he said. “We knew half of us would go to Germany and the rest would go over there. Of course, I wound up in the ‘lucky’ group.”
By 1967 he was on the ground in ‘Nam, assigned to the 518th Military Police Battalion in Da Nang. Burke said his tour was uneventful compared to others he’s heard about.
“The first week, they put you in towers, mostly at night, to look out for the Viet Cong,” he said.
Situated near an air base, he said rockets were “going off all the time.” But they stayed busy and time moved fast.
“We policed on and off base, processed prisoners of war, went on patrols, enforced curfews and sometimes arrested our own guys when we had to,” he said.
He stayed in ‘Nam just one tour. He tried to extend but said the paperwork never cleared.
Burke returned to Fort Monmouth and the years moved quickly. He was a married specialist in 1971 when he was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for rescuing several Soldiers during a barracks fire at Monmouth.
He went on to serve at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and in Korea before being assigned to the 523rd Military Police Company at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
He said APG grew on him.
“We lived in a small apartment but duty wasn’t all that difficult,” he said. “I mostly worked the gates and did driving patrols. Those were good years.”
Burke left the Army in 1979 at the rank of sergeant E-5.
Next, the Navy
However, he soon returned to the military when he joined the Navy as corpsman. He trained at Great Lakes, Illinois and at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland. From Bethesda he returned to Okinawa, then served his final tour at Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina.
Burke retired Jan. 31, 1987 with a total of 26 years of service.
Out of the three branches he served in, he said he liked the Navy best because, “You didn’t have to put up with all the petty inspections.”
Because a good friend from his Army years lived in Aberdeen, Burke eventually settled in Havre de Grace. He moved to Perryville in Cecil County three years ago.
Burke chuckles at the thought that people might think he tried every branch until he found one he liked but says the truth is he liked them all and he loved the military. He wears his Combat Corpsman hat with his Army ribbons and Vietnam service medals attached and his favorite t-shirt that reads: “Corpsmen, We save lives for a living,” every chance he gets.
“The military definitely helped shape me,” he said. “It was like going from a nobody to being a celebrity. You had the honor of serving your country. Everybody doesn’t get that chance, and the sad part is, some of us who do still don’t get what that means.
“I lived through a lot of history. I get to say I was there. When I look back on all the sights I’ve seen and all the places I’ve been, it’s just amazing. It makes me grateful. It makes me proud.”
Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.
On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.
Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.
This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”
For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at email@example.com.