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Serving God and Country

Meet five veterans who overcame personal struggles and found God through The Salvation Army.

This Veterans Day, let us remember:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” —John 15:13

In 1972, “Butch” Theodore Burgner lost his right leg during the Vietnam war and was awarded a Purple Heart. About a decade ago, doctors diagnosed him with throat cancer and gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival. They believed the cancer could have been caused by the defoliant Agent Orange, which he had been exposed to during the war. Today, Burgner has a prosthetic leg and is a faithful senior soldier at the Chambersburg Corps.

I was born and raised in Chambersburg, Pa., a town famous for its Civil War history. I joined the U.S. Army to escape an abusive childhood. I was just 18 when I landed in Vietnam. I served from 1970–72 as an infantry “grunt” with the 101st Airborne Division.

I was trained in demolition. My job was to blow the tops off of every hill. That way, if anybody came under enemy fire or needed to be medevaced out, all they had to do was go to the nearest flattop hill.

One day, my officer told me to go up and secure my squad. Right where everyone stood, I walked up and said, “Let’s spread it out. If Charlie lobs one in here, it will get you all in one shot!” Suddenly the ground just caved in. At that moment, I pretty much knew I had stepped on a mine. At the time, I had about 100 pounds of equipment on me. I froze, but the mine still blew. It disintegrated everything, including my clothes. I was smoking.

When that happened, I began speaking to something. People call the experience shellshock or whatever, but I know there is a God because that day, I discovered a love beyond this earth that was so pure I could feel it. It told me that I had to go back, that I couldn’t stay, and that it wasn’t my time.

I pleaded, “I don’t want to go back in the war zone!” But the next thing I knew, my medic was standing over me. He said, “I thought you were dead!” I said, “I think I was.”

That experience always stuck with me. I know that there is a God. I know that I felt what a taste of heaven has to be like because I can’t describe the love and purity that I felt. I’ve never felt that on this earth.

If I take my best moment in life, the most love I’ve ever felt, and multiply it by tens of thousands, it doesn’t even compare to what I felt at that moment. I know that there’s a God because I’ve been in His presence. No, it wasn’t shellshock or something I envisioned in my mind.

After I got hit, I spent close to a year and a half in Valley Forge Hospital. Initially, they gave me two pain pills and two beers to help the pain pills work. They did work, but unfortunately after about a year or a year and a half of that, I became addicted to pain pills and also to alcohol.

For the next 15 to 20 years of my life, I lived that way. One day, I knew that if I didn’t quit, I was going to end up killing myself or someone else. So, for two years I gave up the drugs and alcohol. I was sober, but I felt empty. I thought, There has to be more to this!” I prayed to the Lord that He would take it all from me.

I was a functional alcoholic. I would drink a beer as I was going to bed and finish it when I got up in the morning. I would drink all day and all night while I held down a job for the government.

Finally, I just told the Lord, “I need Your help. I can’t do this on my own.” All I know is when I got up from my knees, the Lord took it. I never had a craving to drink or drug again, I never had a desire, I never had any shakes or anything physical from it. The Lord took it. The Lord spoke to my heart and turned it around. I just didn’t know I could have such joy without drink or drugs.

I went to various churches, then ended up here at The Salvation Army, which is where the Lord led me. I’ve been a senior soldier for about 15 years. An old major told me, “You used to soldier for the army, now you soldier for the Lord.” That also stuck with me. It’s not about what I did. I served the American flag and for freedom. It isn’t about me. It’s about God and what He has done for me and where He has brought me. The Lord keeps me going. Through everything, God has given me peace.

John Tribble saw most of the Vietnam war through a camera lens while he served as a photographer in the U.S. Army from 1965–66. But he also saw plenty of combat. Later as a photojournalist, he would spend the next 30 years taking photos and performing other tasks for the Public Opinion, a newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa. Today, Tribble is a senior soldier at the Chambersburg, Pa., Corps.

By the time I went to Vietnam at age 26, I had already done a tour in Korea and a tour in Germany. I was considered an old man for that era.

I would not be at liberty to discuss a lot of the classified stuff I took pictures of. But some of the stuff I took was for distribution and public information, for psychological warfare, and for historical records.

I was a believer when I was in Vietnam. One of my best friends was the first person in my unit to get killed. When that happened, I stepped out in the open and said, “Lord, here I am. Do with me what you will.” The thing that really got me the most was that there were four of us who kind of ran together. I was among them taking fire but not a shot came in my direction.

God had plans for me. He got me through.

Then my family came here to The Salvation Army and the rest is history. They invited us and we found a home. My youngest daughter married someone who was involved in the Army. I’ve volunteered in the lunch program and served on the corps council for a number of years. God has been watching out for me in my life.

Richard Smith served in Vietnam from 1968–69 with the U.S. Marines. He earned two Purple Hearts and also lost a leg for his country. A lifelong Salvationist and former Salvation Army officer, he also retired after 31 years with Chase Bank. Today he is the corps treasurer at the Chapel at Worthington Woods in Columbus, Ohio.

I had been in Vietnam a little over six months when I got shot. That, to me, was more traumatic than losing my leg.

In November of ’68, there were a bunch of us along the side of this road that was always getting booby–trapped and mined. We were kind of set up to prevent that. Most everybody slept while one of us stayed awake. I had just woken up my relief and he came on. I really felt bad because I should have made him pick up his rifle. He just came over and sat by the radio without his rifle. Next thing I know, I’m half awake and I look up and there are four North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers standing on the other side where he is sitting. They just opened up on us. I didn’t even know where my rifle was. It should have been right beside me, but the attack happened so quickly, I couldn’t even feel to pick it up.

He took the brunt of it and was killed. I was sure that I was going to be killed, but I wasn’t. Eventually everyone else woke up, but by then the four NVA soldiers took off. I didn’t even know I was hit, so it wasn’t really serious, but they were real deep flesh wounds, as deep as they could go without hitting any organs. I spent about six weeks in the hospital.

So there I was, a scared kid raised in The Salvation Army having been nurtured in the faith as a junior soldier, corps cadet, and senior soldier.  I had accepted Jesus Christ as a youngster but was not really living for Him.  I was keenly aware of the danger I was in both from the perspective of the war and my eternal destiny as it related to Christ.  This weighed heavily upon my mind, yet I continued in my folly.

In January of ’69, we were out on a patrol and had just come through this village. We were right outside our perimeter on this rice paddy dike, and headed back. Everyone in my squad had already passed by this narrow dike, which was only 15 inches wide.

It baffles me that seven others missed the booby trap, but I hit it. The next thing I knew, I’m in the air and flipped over. I noticed the trap had blown off my foot, above the ankle.

I was pretty fortunate because it did it in such a way that it cauterized the arteries. I didn’t even need a tourniquet. I was the radio man, so I called in the medevac.

When I think about everything, I realize that in comparison I was pretty fortunate because, while I went through some traumatic stuff, I really didn’t see a lot of action. There were other friends of mine who went through so much more.

The worst thing about being over there was the constant pressure of not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s terrifying being on the edge and not knowing what’s going on. I don’t know why God spared my life. I even did some bargaining with God. I said, “Lord, get me out of here unharmed and I’ll give You my life.”

Eventually I said, “I don’t care how You get me out of here.” Well, I got shot; then I stepped on a mine. It just seemed like God had a plan. I don’t know how the one guy with me was killed and I was just grazed. I can never get that out of my head.

When I got back from Vietnam, I kind of ignored God for a while. I did some heavy drinking and went to college. The Lord started speaking to me and reminded me He had a plan for my life and that’s why I started helping at the corps in Utica, N.Y.

In 1986, I went into banking. But my years were filled with ups and downs both physically and spiritually.  I got to the point where I felt like I was just going through the motions. I believed in the Lord. I was raised in The Salvation Army, but I felt like I was doing everything in my own strength. I didn’t feel like I was living as a Christian should. I laid it all out before this corps officer, Major Kenneth Lance, who was like a spiritual father to me.

Lance prayed with me and when I went back to my room in the corps building, it was as if a light came on. The Lord was saying, “I’ve got your back.” You might say that was a time I experienced the release of the Holy Spirit in a fresh way. It began a good process where things started to change, and I had a hunger and really wanted to know the Lord.

I went to officer training and served as an officer for about six years. I met my wife in training school and married her six months after commissioning.  We left the work in 1981.  I learned to depend upon and trust God to see me through many challenges and victories. He has proved faithful every step of the way. It was a time of real growth and healing.

In May 2017, I stepped away from banking. Today, I’m looking forward to what God has planned for my retirement years.  I’m trusting Him for new opportunities, always remembering that God said, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5).

As the Vietnam War raged, Harry Dorsey served in the U.S. Army in Korea as a supply clerk from 1969–71. For the past 30 years, he has also served in various capacities for The Salvation Army in Chester, Pa., including helping veterans find housing through the Supportive Services to Veterans Program.

I basically do whatever veterans need. My main component is helping homeless veterans find housing. But most of the time the veterans I get don’t have benefits and they don’t have awareness of how to access Veterans Administration (VA) services. I also get them medical services and I hook them up with VA case managers to get them into subsidized housing. I get them VA benefits, Social Security, and whatever it is they need to make them successful.

When they come in, they’re often not aware of services. Most of the veterans coming out of the service now are aware of services, but those who came out during the Vietnam War era are not aware. Eventually some of them become homeless. Sometimes they find out there is funding available to get housing. I do outreach in Chester. If I see somebody who is a veteran, I will get them connected.

I come from an addiction background. But once I got clean, I came to work for The Salvation Army. Since that time, I’ve been following God’s will. I’m a veteran myself. I’ve been working for The Salvation Army a long while and it’s my mission. God got ahold of me and redirected me. I believe God directs you in the mission He wants you to accept. This is the direction He has sent me. I understand it’s a spiritual journey. I’m here to help every veteran I can.

Luis Morales enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1977 at age 17, two years after the Vietnam War had ended. Though family matters kept him from continuing a career in the military, he used his skills to earn a living as a truck driver, until health issues made his driving career unsafe. Today, he volunteers at the Salvation Army corps in Bound Brook, N.J., and takes pride in being the liaison between the corps and the veterans in his community.

Even during times of relative peace, the U.S. military remains busy. In 1977, our country was in a Cold War; the United States had a base in every segment of Germany that belonged to Russia. The city of Berlin was on one side democratic, and on the other side communist. Even though we were stationed in the communist sections, we were in charge of protecting the democratic side. If there was ever a feeling that conflict would arise at the Berlin wall, I was sent out. I’m proud to have served in such a historic time in world history.

In 1979, my mother became sick, and when a mother with two boys in the service falls ill, one of them is coming home. My older brother, who also served in the Army, was infantry. I was a driver in special weapons. Being the younger and less experienced brother, I was ordered to come home. This led to some resentment on my part; my mother had been firmly against me joining the Army. Now I felt I was being taken out because of her.

Since I already knew how to drive every type of Army vehicle, I took a job as a trucker. My new role was suited to my new attitude; I was quiet but aggressive, and really did not want to interact with other people. If I got into a discussion with someone, I would be arguing  in their face without even realizing what I was doing. Years later, I learned that these traits were common for someone coming out of the military.

In 2013, I suffered a stroke that went untreated. This left the peripheral vision of my right eye permanently damaged. However, I didn’t realize it until two years later when I was in an accident that left my truck dangling over a guardrail off a cliff, and another car destroyed. Though the other driver and I were fortunate to not be hurt, it would be the last time I would ever operate a vehicle.

With no job and my health issues soon taking what little money I had, I became homeless. But in a shelter in Irvington, N.J. my veteran status was recognized thanks to another fellow vet. I finally got the help I needed for my physical health from the Veterans Administration.  My doctors said the worse thing I did was not immediately going to the hospital to be treated after my stroke. It had left me suffering from seizures and migraines.

I also got help handling my self–control issues. Vets needs that, whether they see active service or not. They need to be taught how to adjust back into society. In the service, you are programmed to attack if you ever feel scared. It’s like a switch that they turn on inside of you, but they never show you how to turn it off.

Today, I divide my time between volunteering at the Bound Brook Corps and the local Elks Lodge. I bring the veterans I meet at the lodge to the corps. When they come here, I’m their guide. I show them what the corps has for them, and how they can receive help. When they hear this coming from another veteran, they listen, and they take it to heart.

Due to my past, some people thought that I wouldn’t fit in a place like The Salvation Army. But I’ve been here for over a year and I’m doing what I love. It’s my way of giving thanks to God. Even in my worst times, He never forgot about me. He spared my life after my accident. He brought me to the shelter and to the VA to be healed. He introduced me to the Elks to be with fellow veterans. And finally, he brought me to The Salvation Army, where I can work on getting my relationship with Him back.

interviews by Robert Mitchell and Hugo Bravo
photography by Ryan Love

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