“Is this really happening right now?” says UW Tacoma junior Chris Burd. “If you told me at age 17 that I would one day be sitting thirty feet away from the President of the United States, I would have thought you were lying.” Burd is recalling a recent trip to Dallas where he was honored by the Student Veterans Association’s Leadership Institute. The George W. Bush Presidential Center hosted the event and the former president stopped by to speak with the honorees.
To understand the significance of Burd’s experience in Dallas you need to go back to 1999. Burd had just dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army. He wasn’t in basic training long when he got into a fight with another recruit. “I was that teenager who thought he knew more than he really did,” said Burd. “I didn’t listen to anybody.” When the drill sergeants asked him why he did what he did, Burd made a joke. “I was told to get back on the truck,” said Burd. “I got kicked out pretty soon after that incident.”
The San Antonio native ended up back at home. “I bounced from family member to family member and eventually found myself staying with friends,” said Burd. “When the last friend kicked me out I decided I needed to do something different.” It was September of 2001, three years after Burd’s first attempt at a career in the Army and two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Burd walked into a recruiting station and began the process of starting over. “I felt like I had a better head on my shoulders,” he said. “I still didn’t know much but I knew a little bit more.”
Burd once again found himself in basic training. Three weeks before graduation he dislocated his kneecap and was sent to a special rehabilitation unit. He spent four months recuperating from his injury. “From start to finish it took me nine months to finish basic training when it normally takes nine weeks,” said Burd.
Burd’s second stint in the Army lasted considerably longer than his first. He spent thirteen and a half years in the service, time that included two tours of duty in Iraq. Burd was deployed to Ramadi in the summer of 2004. While there he developed a friendship with an Army combat medic from another unit named Alex Vaughn. “I was always asking him questions about what it was like to be a medic,” said Burd. “In many ways he shaped my future in the military.”
Burd had been assigned to work as a tank mechanic. His conversations with Vaughn got him thinking about new possibilities. The two had been in Iraq close to a year and were six weeks from going home when Vaughn was killed in an ambush. “I was shocked,” said Burd. “He was almost there.”
Not long after returning from Iraq, Burd had the chance to switch from tank mechanic to combat medic. “I have this need to help others,” he said. The evolution from rebellious, self-centered teen to selfless caregiver is something Burd thinks about. “Selfishness will only take you so far,” he said. “You become a very cold and closed off person when you think only about yourself.”
A whole new world opened up to Burd as a combat medic. He found himself in a position of leadership. “I had soliders in my care and it was my duty to help them grow professionally,” he said. The process wasn’t always smooth and this makes sense when you consider Burd had never before assumed this type of role. “I made so many mistakes,” he said.
Burd planned to serve at least twenty years in the Army. He wanted to go to college and get a degree in emergency health sciences with the eventual goal of managing ambulance crews. It seems an odd twist of fate that Burd’s own health interfered with his plans. He had shoulder and back issues that haunted him throughout his time in the military. Four different doctors told him he needed to get out and find a new career. “I resisted for a long time,” said Burd. “When it came down to it I had to ask myself if I wanted to continue doing what I was doing and be miserable or maybe try something else and find some enjoyment in my life.”
Burd left the Army in May of 2015. He and his wife moved from Texas to Puyallup. The pair met when Burd was stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord. “She is the reason I went back to school,” he said. “I don't think I would have made it this far without her pushing me to keep going.”
In 2015 Burd enrolled at Pierce College Puyallup. He transferred to UW Tacoma a year later. While in the service he'd taken multiple career aptitude tests. Each one came back with the same results: supply chain management. Burd is pursuing a degree in business administration through the Milgard School of Business. “Nonprofits need professionals that understand supply chain management,” said Burd. “I want to work with one that is connected to the military and veteran communities.”
Burd has kept himself busy while on campus. He's currently interning at the Geneva Foundation, a non-profit that funds research into military health care. Burd works at UW Tacoma's Veteran and Military Resource Center (VMRC) and he's also served as a peer advisor to fellow student vets through the PAVE program (Peer Advisors for Veteran Education). Last spring Burd's peers elected him president of the university's Student Veteran Organization. “We're here to help student vets achieve success in their educational, personal and career development goals,” he said.
A few months ago, Burd was asked to submit an application to the national Student Veterans Association's Leadership Institute. He was hesitant at first but some gentle prodding by his wife and the VMRC's Associate Director Rosalynn Johnson got Burd to change his mind. “Their faith in me is very humbling,” he said.
More than 500 student veterans from around the country turned in applications and only 100 were chosen, including Burd. He spent four days in Dallas learning from professionals including former United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. “I hope I can use what I learned to help future leaders here, to help others become inspired to lead,” said Burd.
Chris Burd has come a long way. His journey included lots of twists and turns but he got there. Burd wants the same thing for his fellow veterans. “We're not broken, there's nothing wrong with us,” he said. “We have a lot to offer and sure, we may face obstacles, but we'll overcome them given the chance.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-682-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org