NORTH FORK – While folks around the mountain area were enjoying a warm and festive holiday season with friends and relatives, there were many families with an empty chair at the dinner table. That’s because these families have a son or daughter, mom or dad, brother or sister who is serving their country in some far-away land.
Those absent loved-ones may have been gathered in a mess hall with their comrades-in-arms, or hunkered down in make-shift quarters in hostile territory, far from the celebrations back home.Suzie Burks is one of those soldiers. Suzie is from North Fork, and is now serving in Afghanistan, at FOB (forward operating base) Salerno, near Khost on the Pakistani border.
Suzie’s dad, Don Burks, describes it as a “hell hole” that has been nick-named “rocket city,” because “the Taliban, who have taken safe haven in Pakistan, come across the border and shoot rockets and mortars at various facilities, and the closest one is where Suzie is.”
It’s tough for military families who have loved ones serving in this mostly forgotten war, says Don, and he worries that most Americans have forgotten about the young people who are deployed.
“It’s kind of scary for these soldiers from day to day. It’s not only the danger from the enemy, but the place itself is like worse than being in a prison. They’re on a very tough schedule; these kids get zero time off, and very little support from the folks back home.”
Don Burks, who served in the Air Force and is a retired CHP officer, has a long family history of military service. His father was a WWII hero, earning all the medals available at the time except the Congressional Medal of Honor. His wife Mary comes from a family with a military history going back to the American Revolution.
But when daughter Suzie decided to attend West Point, following in the footsteps of her father, brother and sister before her, her parents were a bit surprised.
“Suzie was the petite one, the girly-girly one,” says her father. While she was attending Glacier High School, she was allowed to take two classes at YHS, and one of them was Cadet Corp. Suzie rose to the position of Executive Officer, and so she started to get involved in military types of things early on.
Her SAT scores and GPA were so high, she was recruited by Santa Clara University in her junior year. But Suzie wanted to go to West Point.
Her parents, wanting to be sure of that decision, took Suzie to the Santa Clara campus to tour the University. They were all impressed at how clean and professional the school was, but at the end of the day, Suzie said, “No Dad, I still want to go to West Point.”
A graduate of Glacier Home School in Oakhurst, Suzie went on to graduate from West Point in May of 2010. Her older sister Jessica, a Yosemite High grad, was also a cadet at the Point, so Suzie was able to be there for one year with her sister, who graduated in 2007.
Now stationed in the far reaches of the middle east, Suzie serves as a logistics officer, moving troops and equipment around the area. Though she works in an office-type setting, he dad says it is an environment filled with constant stress.
“Everybody there is armed all the time, of course. If you’re walking outside, two things are required – protective glasses and an AR-15. There’s never any down time, they never get to relax.”
Don says the troops are not allowed to watch TV, even though it is available. The lack of any type of recreation or entertainment concerns him.
“At least in other wars, we had the USO,” says Don. “In World War II, they would send people to entertain the troops. Even in Iraq. But not in this part of Afghanistan. Maybe in the larger places like Kabul, but these smaller outposts is where the help and support is really needed, and they just don’t get it.”
Suzie lives in a room virtually the size of a walk-in closet. It’s very tiny, it’s crude, and it’s plywood. Everything there is constructed very cheaply because the troops will have to deconstruct everything when they pull out, rather than leave it for the Taliban to commandeer.
Her dad says they have breaks on occasion, but probably work about 12 hours a day. Then they go to bed, they get up and do it all over again, seven days a week. Don says Suzie has left the FOB on occasion, but she doesn’t have much desire to get out because there’s nothing there to do, and no place to go.
“If you could imagine yourself in a compound that is ugly and scary, and working constantly round the clock, like any other human being you’d like a break once in a while,” says Don. “Maybe go to a movie theater to forget things, but there are no theaters there. They live in a hostile place, and prisoners have a much better life as far as quality is concerned, than our soldiers do.”
When she went off post a few weeks ago in a convoy, Suzie told her dad it took them two hours for a drive that normally takes 30 minutes, because they have to constantly scan the roadway for IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Don worries that the very tough restrictions, the constant stress and the lack of down time, drives down morale and makes soldiers doubt whether they want to spend more time in the military.
“Some do, I’m thinking most don’t,” he says. “It just seems to me as a parent, this is my personal opinion, that the military and the wars have become so politicized that these kids have become sacrificial lambs. You hear about military budgets, but you don’t hear about the soldiers themselves. They’ve been kicked around like a political football, and they get lost in the dust storm.”
It saddens Don that our kids in the military don’t get the attention and support they need. “We need to identify these kids and give them the honor they deserve. If nothing else it would make their parents feel good. These kids that are there now are all our next veterans. Some will never come home, and the media just don’t seem to pay any attention.”
When we spoke to Don, it was just before the holidays, and he and his wife Mary were not planning any festivities. “This Christmas is not going to be Christmas for us,” he said. “This day will go by like any other week day. But next year, we have that all planned, ’cause Suzie will be back home, hopefully safe, and we intend to have our Christmas then.”
When asked what he thinks our soldiers need most, he was adamant, “They need support. They need to know that the nation is behind them, and that they have not been forgotten. They don’t have that.”
If you have a family member who is on active duty and deployed somewhere far from home, please let us know. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your story. We are launching a new section on the website to honor those who serve, and to remind everyone of the sacrifices made, not only by the troops themselves, but by the families who are left behind.