While reading recent news from Afghanistan, I was saddened to open the Alaska Post and see a familiar face – Spc. James Burnett Jr.
I spent time with Burnett, a Clearwater High School graduate, while covering his battalion’s operations in Kandahar province. Oct. 17 was the first night I met him; we spent eight hours waiting in a Stryker for the men in his company to return from a foot patrol in Do’ab village. In the not-so-spacious confines of the vehicle, I heard about this young man’s life. He was 20, but his goofy demeanor reminded me of my little brother.
He was 21 when he died one month later, Nov. 16, in the same province he spent nearly every day patrolling.
The news stung.
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During the week I spent covering his unit’s mission, Burnett would often tell me, “Sergeant, it’s the real thing out here.” He was right. It was a dangerous place, and the insurgents were not willing to give it up easily.
I could sense he was scared, but I didn’t want to ask him. Infantrymen don’t share those vulnerabilities with anyone but their own. Fear seems to be one of the many things that bond them together, especially in times of war where they face the possibility of dying each time they go on patrol.
Pfc. Alberio Porto was Burnett’s closest friend in the company. I called them twins because, in addition to their slight resemblance, they seemed to be attached at the hip the entire time I was with their unit.
In the week or so we had spent together, I was able to see the closeness they shared. Burnett talked about getting out of the Army, returning home to Wichita, marrying his fiancee and becoming a police officer, and how he and Porto would celebrate his 21st birthday far away from Afghanistan.
The bond of infantrymen is one that, really, only infantrymen will ever be able to understand.
In our first meeting in the Stryker that chilly October night, Burnett and I talked about his role in this war. He said at times he didn’t understand it but he knew that in the grander scheme of things, he was doing his part like other infantrymen had done before him.
This seemed to be a profound thing for someone to grasp at age 20, but that’s the reality of war. You face fear and death and grow up faster, in many ways, than your peers who haven’t served.
Porto was with Burnett and Pfc. Matthew Colin the day both were killed by an improvised explosive device. Porto was seriously injured.
“I had other friends when I got to the company, but when (Burnett and I) started talking, we just connected like brothers,” Porto said. “Once we deployed, and after I came back from leave, we were never apart. We did guard duty, details, missions, ate and hung out together. We always talked about our personal problems. We helped each other out. We had plans after deployment. I lost a brother.”
Burnett has taught me lessons that no other experience in my military career has come close to matching. He taught me to live life to the fullest, to love those closest to me, and to face fear and adversity with the dignity and professionalism that are becoming of the most honorable Americans our nation has to offer.