War on Terrorism

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Face of Defense: Soldier Trades Desk for Machine Gun

By Army Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte
Combined Joint Task Force 101

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2010 – His position was under heavy enemy fire when a round hit Army Pfc. Jonathan B. Burson in the chest.

“It was almost surreal,” the 28-year-old gunner said. “I could feel the fragments of the bullet hit my face.”

Company A, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, was holding an overwatch position in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province as part of Operation Strong Eagle on June 27 when the firefight started.

Burson was on the M240B machine gun. The other heavy weapon, an automatic grenade launcher, had stopped working, causing him to draw even more fire. One of many rocket-propelled grenades being fired at the unit exploded 20 feet in front of his position before he was shot.

When he checked himself for injuries, Burson found the back of his ballistic chest plate bowed out instead of the hole he expected to find. “I got back on my gun and started firing again,” he said.

Burson, who is from Katy, Texas, did not take the typical route to becoming an infantryman. He was working as structural designer for an engineering company in Houston when he decided to join the Army last year.

He initially wanted to become a civilian pilot, but discovered the difficulties of holding a job while also going to school and affording the cost of flight lessons. Instead, he worked his way up in the engineering company to the point where he drafted three-dimensional construction plans on computers.

By then, Burson found himself stifled by life in an office.

“I was just tired of the daily grind, … 50 to 60 hours behind a desk,” he said.

Now, he pulls guard shifts at Combat Outpost Monti and patrols one of the more dangerous areas of Afghanistan with his fellow soldiers – earning a salary that’s one-third of what he was making in the civilian world.

“My friends all thought I was crazy,” he said. “It’s something I always wanted to do. I just decided to go for it.”

The choice was not entirely out of character. As an avid fan of the outdoors, he likes hunting and camping, and as a fan of the adrenaline rush, he likes fast cars and motorcycles.

Burson is scheduled to attend Ranger school to become a member of the special operations forces after his deployment, and he seriously is considering a career in the military. He said he chose the infantry because he didn’t want to wind up behind a desk again.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not always exciting. It’s hard work. At the same time, it’s rewarding.”

His platoon leader, Army 1st Lt. Ryan D. Krolicki of Milwaukee, described Burson as a thinker who uses his head during patrols. He said he usually places him as a gunner in vehicles, because Burson keeps a good situational awareness and lets him know what the vehicle commander needs to know.

“I like to have him in my turret, because he’s good at it,” Krolicki said.

Burson’s family has always been supportive of the military, but was worried about his safety. He doesn’t tell his family everything that happens, he said, and only planned to tell his mother about his close call when he went home for leave in August.

“It made me reconsider my religious beliefs,” he said of the incident. “I couldn’t believe I survived the firefight. It didn’t seem like it would end well.”

His company has suffered heavy losses since arriving at Monti. From May until August, it had nine fatalities and many wounded. Burson said he was close with some of the soldiers who have died, and dealing with the deaths has been difficult.

Two of his fellow soldiers were wounded during the June 27 firefight.

“It’s hard to say why things happen the way they do,” Burson said.

Many soldiers at Monti live together in open barracks, sharing a living space with little privacy. During their down time, they work out, watch movies, use the Internet at the base morale center, and joke around together. Burson described his unit as almost like a family.

“You really couldn’t ask for better,” he said, noting the additional pride he has in his division. “It’s a real honor to wear the 101st [Airborne Division] patch.”

Burson, an agnostic, said his mother prays for his safety constantly.

“She says there are angels watching over me, so maybe she’ll be comforted that it’s working.”

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