NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — His dad rarely talked about his time fighting in World War II.
Bill Burleigh knew his father had been wounded, shot twice, in the famed Battle of Iwo Jima. Oh, and that his dad was a boxer in the Marines, racking up a 47-2 record in the ring during his time in the service. But that was about it.
“All of our dads were WWII veterans and they were very patriotic,” he said. “But my dad never told me what he did.”
After his father died in 1974, Burleigh found out his dad was quietly helping fellow veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and other issues that haunted them.
“After the funeral, several people came up to my brother, sister, and I and were telling us all about it,” he said.
Like father, like son: Burleigh spent his adult life in the military — and in service to military veterans.
Burleigh, 66, soon will step down as CEO of Operation Stand Down Tennessee, which helps veterans with job placement, housing, mental health, and other areas that help them transition from active duty to civilian life.
But that journey had a rocky start.
Burleigh, who grew up in Memphis, had managed to avoid getting drafted for two years because he was a full-time college student at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But he dropped down to part-time his junior year because of a wicked ear infection that took him out of classes for more than a month.
At the time, Burleigh felt no call to fight in the Vietnam War. “I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
So, he appealed his draft notice on medical grounds: A serious neck injury from a high school football game left Burleigh unable to move his head much. Besides, he was still dizzy from that inner-ear infection.
The appeals board was unimpressed.
“There were three very elderly people, WWI veterans, and they said, ‘Well, Mr. Burleigh, you say you have a problem with your neck but you walked in here. You look good to us. You’re good to go.’ ”
After basic training in Fort Campbell, he went to officer candidate school in Oklahoma, missile training in Utah, and artillery unit combat in Vietnam, where he served seven months.
His unit saw plenty of action, mostly firing cannons at enemy positions, but very little close-in fighting.
Burleigh landed back in the States in Oakland, California, on Dec. 23, 1971, but it was hardly a warm homecoming.
Anti-war Californians booed and screamed at Burleigh and some other uniformed soldiers as the troops made their way to a bar near the airport.
Burleigh slept all the way to Memphis, where a flight attendant had to wake him to get off the plane. He went to stay with his dad, but suddenly, Burleigh felt alone and unsettled.
“In the military, you have your own culture, your own systems, you develop your own slang; then all of a sudden you’re thrown out and you don’t know how to relate to people,” he said.
There was no exit interview, no job searching seminars, no classes on how to make a resume, no therapists to deal with post-traumatic stress, no nothing.
Well, there was something. In California, during an exit physical exam, a dentist pointed out that Burleigh still had his wisdom teeth. “We can cut ’em out for ya,” the dentist said. “Uncle Sam will do that for you.”
Burleigh declined; he wanted to get home.
His father died three years to the day after Burleigh got back to Memphis. Cancer. The procession to the VA cemetery in Memphis was several miles long as hundreds of admirers — including dozens of men he’d helped — came to bury WWII veteran Jack Burleigh.
Bill Burleigh got married, to a woman with four children, and he worked construction. Two years later, he heard about earning good money with the Tennessee National Guard.
Burleigh went back to the military for another two decades, serving a tour in Iraq and retiring in 1998 as a Guard commander.
Times had changed: Burleigh entered an Army career adjustment program that year, and he had several seminars in job searches, resume building and other skills, and some medical services.
“The military’s making an effort, but it’s still not enough, nor will it be enough,” he said. “The Department of Defense is focused on fighting and defending.”
Burleigh started volunteering for a veterans’ aid group called Operation Stand Down Tennessee, which filled gaps in veterans’ services, and he became executive director just a year later.
Since taking over, the agency has grown exponentially, moving from a single office suite to a sprawling cubicle farm in the old Piggly Wiggly grocery store space at 12th and Edgehill, just a mile or so south of downtown.
But it hasn’t been easy: Burleigh even quit for a short time after his first year as director.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I’m not cut out for this, these grants, this paperwork. This was starting something from scratch. In the military, you always had staff and everything was already in place.”
Prayer and encouragement from board members lured Burleigh back.
Though Burleigh is set to step down again when a new executive director is found, he’s sure he’ll keep helping veterans. After all, it’s in his blood.
“This is a calling from the Lord to do this,” he said. “It’s what I was called to do.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
This article was written by BRAD SCHMITT from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.