ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Wartime service to the nation gave this Marine an appreciation of life that led to him embracing the ministry.
Keith Burd was born in North Dakota and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 16. Burd was in college at the University of Wisconsin by 17, and he recalled the anti-war protests that were prevalent on his and other college campuses around the nation. He said he was “turned off” by them.
“I thought the Jane Fonda-type organizations didn’t get it,” he said. “I didn’t like the attitude about not trusting the military. I agreed about politicians but not about Soldiers, who weren’t the ones making the decisions.”
Burd said he had a desire to serve and his parents allowed him to enlist after his first semester.
He said they were not happy with his decision to join the Marine Corps, however.
“I come from a Navy and Air Force family so they were a little upset I chose the Marines.”
Even more upsetting to them was the fact that he requested to go to ‘Nam on his first tour.
“I guess I had visions of grandeur and heroism,” he said, noting that he had one brother who was a conscientious objector and another who was medically unable to serve.
Medically challenged as well, due to poor eyesight in one eye, Burd almost didn’t make it in either. With 20-20 eyesight in one eye but 20-700 in the other, he failed his initial physical. When he insisted on joining, however, the physician acquiesced and changed the measurement to 20-20. Later, in boot camp, they threatened to send him home, Burd said.
“They patched my bad eye and put me on the rifle range and I qualified,” he said. “Fifteen other guys didn’t and they gave them all a hard time, saying, ‘this guy is as blind a bat and he qualified but you couldn’t?’” he chuckled.
Burd attended boot camp at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in San Diego, California in 1966. He also took Advanced Infantry training and an Escape and Evasion course at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. He said the course was tough, but necessary preparation.
“We learned how to locate mines and did other tactical training, then they sent us out for three days with a canteen of water and a rifle. We used blanks but you could still get shot and killed at close range. It was very realistic.”
He also went to at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where he was trained as an 1141 Electrician.
Heading to ‘Nam
After 30 days leave with his family, Burd headed to ‘Nam, traveling by Army transport ship. The 30-day journey included a stop in Okinawa, Japan, before arriving at Cam Rahn Bay in August 1966. He recalled his first look at ‘Nam.
“We actually climbed down ropes and dropped into a landing craft that took us to the beach,” he said.
The area, a Green Zone when he arrived, eventually became known as “Rocket City when things heated up a few months later.”
“It was a beautiful area. It wasn’t really a combat zone. It was a pretty, safe place; it didn’t seem real.”
He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and was sent to the Monkey Mountain Facility near Da Nang – a U.S. Air Force-controlled site supporting Da Nang Air Base operations where the Marines were responsible for defense of the area.
Site missions included signal intelligence and tactical air control, and the Marines deployed Army Hawk missiles from the mountain. As an electrician, Burd said he spent much of his time ‘hooking up’ perimeter lighting with flood lamps and providing electricity for kitchens and other facilities.”
“We had to keep the generators running 24/7 for the missile and radar systems,” he said.
He added that the intense training Marines received prior to ‘Nam didn’t prepare them for nature’s challenges.
“They never told us about the tigers or the monkeys,” he said, noting that the two species were plentiful and aggressive.
“They told us about elephants and snakes but nothing about monkeys,” he said. “They could throw rocks better than we could.”
“I wasn’t afraid of the tigers because of the six-foot barbed wire fences,” he added. “It wasn’t until I got back to the states that I found out a tiger can jump over a nine-foot brick wall with a 100-pound cat in its mouth. I’m glad I didn’t know that then.”
He said teams typically ran patrols up and down the mountain looking for Viet Cong.
“We were located near Army Green Berets and they kept the area pretty clear,” he said. “The Army and Navy Seals had joint operations at times. Monkey Mountain had a lot of expensive equipment on it that they didn’t want destroyed.”
Along with the regular mission, Burd pulled guard duty on listening posts at night and ran maintenance on generators and radar dishes during the day. He said security was their top priority and avoiding snipers became an art.
“They were relentless. We had to keep a check on claymore mine placements because the VC would sneak in and turn them around. One night, lightning struck the mountain and all the mines went off.”
As the war intensified, he began losing friends and comrades. He said the toughest loss for him was his commander, who he had served with since Escape and Evasion training and through the first month or so in ‘Nam.
“That’s when I knew it was real,” he said. “He was the best. He taught us a lot and we all looked up to him. I lost more friends then than at any other time in my life. So many guys in the photos I have never made it home.”
At the end of his tour, Burd volunteered for a second one.
“I guess I felt like John Wayne,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave Monkey Mountain. War to us was like, you’re not fighting for your country, you’re fighting for your friends.”
After a 30-day break in the states, Burd was reassigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3/7th Engineers west of Da Nang from November 1967 to May 1968. His job, protecting supply routes, meant sweeping roads for booby traps for seven miles in each direction.
“Supplies moved by road. Water buffalos, C-rations, ammunition and other supplies would be lost to booby traps all the time,” he said, noting that much of the sweeps were visual, requiring 40 to 50 men at a time.
The Tet Offensive
When the Tet Offensive began in January 1968, security became their main job, Burd said.
“It got real intense. One of my best friends lost an arm and leg to a personnel mine. Snipers were everywhere and it was too hot to keep the roads open.”
The Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks in an offensive push by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese against U.S. and United Nations forces that lasted into September 1968. Burd said his area was cut off for 43 days during the height of the campaign.
“We were several camps co-located together and they had to fly everything in to us. You could see the VC shooting at the Hueys and Chinooks. But when they started shooting at the helicopters bringing the mail that really ticked us off and we started shooting back.”
Sniper fire and mortar harassment during Tet became almost routine, Burd said. While his nights were spent on listening posts he wanted to be a “part of the action.”
“I knew I was just an electrician but I wanted to know what was going on so I volunteered to be a radio man.”
With the radio on his back on an outer-perimeter listening post, Burd said, “tracer rounds started coming in.”
“The next thing I know I’m getting shot at. I look back and nobody else is getting shot at but me. I never volunteered for that again.
Another night – and one that sticks in his mind – Burd said a mortar landed right in front of him and didn’t go off.
“It just stuck in the mud,” he said. “I’ll never forget that. It’s not that we believed in God back then but if someone took the Lord’s name in vain we went off on them. We weren’t believers, but out there in the holes we were very superstitious.”
Transition to civilian life
Burd survived the Tet and his second tour. He earned five battle commendations and added four Oak Leaf Clusters to his Vietnam Service ribbon. After a tour at Camp Lejeune, he wound up at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade as a security inspector and investigator.
He left NSA in 1970 and worked for BGE and IBEW for 25 years. He met his future wife Livvy in 1973; they married in 1975.
Burd said a coworker encouraged him to read the Bible, and he found the Lord the same year after reading Bible scriptures at work.
“I had it inside a “Playboy” magazine so no one would know I was reading a Bible,” he said. “I was still drinking then and pretty happy with my life, but things changed for me almost right away. I wanted to learn more about God and Jesus.
He and Livvy started going to church and eventually, Burd studied for the ministry. He was ordained in 1984 and today he is the pastor of the Pilgrim Presbyterian Church in Kingsville, Maryland.
Burd looks back on ‘Nam with much solemnity.
“I never thought I would go from the land of rice paddies to the pulpit,” he said.
“I tried to put ‘Nam out of my mind. When I came home I had a temper. I never watched any of the war movies they made; sometimes I still have nightmares but the sound of a helicopter is still a great comfort to me.
“I think the Lord prepared me for his service because I haven’t lost my temper since I got saved. Even when people get in my face angry I just get calmer and calmer.”
Burd said he loves the military, and he sometimes is angered at the mistreatment of veterans.
“So many died protecting me so I could go on,” he said. “That’s why I love my country and that’s why I’m proud of my service. I have no regrets.”
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.