Office Space: John Burson, Combat Surgeon

For his 77th birthday, John Burson enjoyed a low-key celebration with some coworkers. The surprise is not that Burson, ChE 55, MS Met 63, PhD ChE 64, is still working beyond retirement age, it’s the location where he was working: a combat emergency room in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is the fourth deployment since 2005 for Burson, a physician in Villa Rica, Ga., and retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. In 2008, Burson received the Georgia Tech Alumni Association’s Dean Griffin Community Service Award. Before returning to the United States in October, he sent photos and reflected by email on the war now nearly a decade after it began.

Medical care: We run a clinic much like an emergency room. We see mostly sprains, colds, minor injuries. We only see major trauma if we have an event like incoming rocket fire, suicide bombs, etc. This is a much lower intensity job than previous deploys. There is one huge difference between home and here. Here, there are zero distractions. The days all run together after a while since we work seven days a week.

Fighting fatigue: There is a very strong feeling of love of country and overall patriotism that is not seen in other places. The troops are very proud to serve their country. All in all, morale is still good but there is a definite fatigue factor that is much more prevalent now than, say, in 2005.


Stuffed animals: They were on our First Sergeant’s desk. Troops here are fond of stuffed animals and often carry them in their packs. Remember, they are hard and tough, may swear a bit and dip, but they are still just kids at heart.

Comfy confines: Quarters are good, very much like dorm life. In fact, there’s an eerie resemblance to my room in Towers Dorm when I started at Tech in July 1951. Much better than my last deploy, when I lived in a tent for three and a half months. Hot showers and out of the weather is hard to beat.

Gear: I have to have my laptop, supplemented by my iPad this time. Skype is the soldier’s friend—everyone talks to home every day, it seems. I always buy a cheap coffee maker at the PX. I usually have a cell phone, but not this trip. Very easy and free to call home on military and USO phones.

Why do I go?: I keep asking myself that question. I suppose it is a desire to give back a little in return for having lived the American dream. And ask yourself, how else can a 77-year-old guy get these kinds of thrills and adrenaline rushes? Churchill put it well, that there are few things as exhilarating as being shot at— and missed. I will keep coming as long as they will have me.

Fighting trim: I typically lose about 15 pounds and get down to ideal body weight on these deploys. Of course, it doesn’t last, but it is nice to have a flat belly again, even if only for a few months.

Occasional excitement: Even though everyday life is very slow, we occasionally have some excitement as we did in late June with a hotel explosion just a few blocks away and a few RPG attacks in the meantime. We have the special ops folks here but really see very little of them except in the chow hall and when they’re returning from their dark missions.

Fragile presence: I’m here at a decisive moment, at the very peak of the surge that Obama signed off on two years ago. Other than the recent success in dealing at last with Osama, it is hard to see any significant change in our situation. Every aspect of our presence here is very fragile and subject to a quick turn around. Reportedly, violence in Afghanistan is considerably higher than it was last year. And the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan appear unchanged. In addition, our relations with Pakistan have deteriorated since the Osama raid and, without significant Pakistani    assistance, victory—however we define it—is not possible.

Uncertain future: Anyone who has seen the Afghan army in action knows that only a very small percentage of these soldiers have even a rudimentary knowledge of how to wage effective war. For the most part, these soldiers are illiterate and unable to plan and execute operations on their own. On top of all this, the number of Afghan soldiers who go AWOL or desert is alarmingly high.

Unanswered questions: What will happen to the 30 million Afghans when we finally leave? Are we here for nation building or humanitarian reasons? Afghan leaders are notorious for their corruption and [President Hamid] Karzai seems more estranged than ever with frequent accusations against his NATO protectorate. In the final analysis, will Afghanistan be able to stand on its own when we leave? If not, we have wasted a lot of fine young American and allied lives, spent uncounted billions of dollars and have little to show for the 10 years we have been here.

Toll of war: I hear the talking heads on television urging us to stay the course. I wonder how many of them would be so bold if they had seen soldiers with both legs blown off, with horrible head wounds and debilitating emotional injuries that many will live with their entire lives. In addition to the loss of life and long-term casualties, we must remind ourselves of the billions and billions of dollars that we have spent. From a purely American point of view, these wars have helped put us on a devastating course of economic distress, which will continue for many years and seriously compromises our overall military strength.

Too quick to fight: I have thought long and hard about America and war and wonder where we seem to have lost our way. Why have we been, throughout our history, almost continuously at war? The framers of our Constitution made it very difficult to go to war, but we keep finding ways to get around these prohibitions. Do we need to quit listening to the generals and hawkish politicians and try the Constitutional way? We might be pleasantly surprised. A very wise friend of mine with enormous experience in military and political matters reminds me that we thought long and hard before entering WWII and, even then, it took a surprise Japanese attack to finally provoke us into war.

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