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Clyde Beal: Vietnam veteran shares story of service

Mar. 31, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Most people would never suspect that Warren "Rudy" Burton lived through the horrors of war in Vietnam. With a soft speaking voice just above a whisper, an unassuming demeanor along with a broad smile, Burton covers up his memories of living on the edge of life in the jungles of southeast Asia remarkably well. He just seems like a guy who has handled life's detours with an ongoing positive attitude.

"I have no ill feelings toward the Army for anything that happened to me in Vietnam," said Burton. "It does me no good to be bitter. I feel fortunate that I even came home alive. There were thousands who were not as lucky. I had a life to return to after my military discharge, and I did my best to live it without letting the memory of that miserable war get in my way."

There are thousands of former military individuals just like Warren. They answered the call of duty to protect our freedom and returned home with memories that many still find impossible to deal with.

Burton was born 65 years ago in Portsmouth, Va. He has loved to fish his entire life, he played high school football and stayed in pocket change during his teenage years passing the local newspaper and cutting grass around the neighborhood.

For the next few years following high school, his life settled into a comfortable routine. Burton found work at the Newport News, Va., shipyard. He met this cute girl from Huntington who also worked there. And, until his draft notice arrived, there was leisure time for fishing off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

March of 1967 found Pvt. Warren Burton at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was going to be trained in the art of surviving in the jungles of Vietnam. After a few weeks at Fort Bragg, Burton was reassigned to Fort Polk, La., for advanced infantry training.

Some of the highlights of his military training at Fort Polk included operation and repair of the M-16 automatic rifle; familiarization, operation and field maintenance of the M60 machine gun; hand-to-hand combat; jungle survival; night training maneuvers; and learning firsthand the destructive capabilities of hand grenades and mortar fire.

"We transferred into Fort Polk at a time when the old World War II Army barracks were being torn down," Burton said. "The place was a muddy mess. Because of all the construction and building demolition going on, we were assigned to large tents as our living quarters. They were cold, drafty and always wet."

Burton didn't know it at the time, but those conditions prepared him for his next assignment. He would later admit that he endured his living conditions better in Vietnam because they resembled the same exact wet drafty tents of Fort Polk so well, especially during the rainy monsoon season.

"My first duty in Vietnam was a Radio Transport Operator," said Burton. "It was my responsibility to stay close to the officer in charge while on patrol so he could communicate with other companies. The more we walked through the jungles, the heavier that radio became on my back. But it saved my life while on patrol one day. Enemy ground fire destroyed the radio, but (the radio) prevented me from being wounded."

About three months later, Burton was transferred to the 25th Infantry which was well known for its fighting in wars past. Five days after being transferred, he was badly wounded by an explosion while on night patrol. Three fragments of shrapnel hit his body with such force that his eyeglasses were ripped away in pieces. After being airlifted out for medical help, he was sent back to base camp for two additional months of treatment and rehab.

After being released from medical treatment, Sgt. Burton returned to his outfit to serve out his tour. He managed to complete the rest of his time in Vietnam without shedding any more blood. For his wounds, Burton received the prestigious Purple Heart as well as the Bronze Star.

Burton said the promotion to sergeant was a double-edged sword. The pay increased a little, but you were put out in front on all jungle patrols. This meant you were the first to be seen by the Viet Cong. He also mentioned that he once took the brief opportunity to fish by a river while on patrol. Using a string, a bent bobby pin and a freshly dug worm, he managed to catch a small fish of unknown origin. He tossed it back in the river.

Shortly after receiving the Purple Heart, for reasons unknown to Burton, the Army had him declared as killed in action.

"It was a horrible mistake because of nearly identical names of another soldier I never knew," said Burton. "When my father got the news, he nearly died of a heart attack. Of course the Army apologized, but the damage had already been done. Even after a phone call from me, dad still wanted to punish someone for the mistake."

Burton spent the last four months of Army life at Fort Knox, Ky. Duties were less dangerous, nights were void of any explosions and the fear of being overrun by the enemy.

After leaving the Army, he returned to the shipyards in Virginia where he worked until retirement. He finally got around to marrying that cute girl who worked nearby, and after she retired they pulled up stakes and came to live in Huntington near his wife's family.

The fishing still continues when the weather permits. Problems associated with the war still persist, and medical visits occur on a routine basis, but West Virginia agrees with them both. Especially the tranquil setting at Beech Fork.

Clyde Beal is a freelance writer looking for anyone with memories of owning a Cushman Motor scooter. Write him at archie350@frontire.com.