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Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton: 'That's all I ever really wanted to do'

DRAPER — For more than a dozen years, Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton has carried the reminders of duty and sacrifice on his head, if not his heart. Every morning, he tucks notes into the band of his hat before he goes to work. Some are gifts from school kids, and one contains a list of the 12 men who were killed in combat or during 9/11 under his command.

“They are reminders of why I do what I do,” he says, taking off the hat and unfolding the papers to show a guest.

Burton, who was appointed adjutant general of the Utah National Guard four years ago, has served in the military for 35 years and still says things like this: “I love having a job that when I get up in the morning I feel like it matters. I love to put on the uniform because I know what it represents. ... Being a member of the military has made me a better person, which is my hope for all who serve.”

He is a battle-tested, decorated soldier who has disarmed bombs, picked through rubble for the dead, pursued bad guys and seen friends killed in firefights. He just doesn’t wear it on his countenance or in his demeanor. He is an open, pleasant man with a full head of close-cropped hair and the square-shoulder, slender physique of a former track athlete, which he is. At 57, he looks younger than his years and exactly like the guy Hollywood would cast for the role of a military officer, albeit a gentler version.

“Generals are typecast as gruff, hard-nosed individuals, but that’s not him,” says Lt. Col. Steven Fairboun, the guard’s public affairs officer. “Most people after meeting him are shocked at how personable he is.”

As adjutant general, Burton oversees a $350 million budget and a force of 7,000 men and women who serve in either the Army National Guard or the Air National Guard. Some 5,000 of them are part-timers who, in their day jobs, are doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, carpenters. Serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year, they are true citizen-soldiers who are ready to handle a large range of duties — fighting the nation’s wars, putting out wildfires, rebuilding flood-damaged roads, restoring order, cleaning up after wind storms and hurricanes.

“We consider it a no-fail mission,” says Burton. “We’ve got to be ready to provide speedy relief to our citizens.”

Burton’s primary job is the training and mobilization of thousands of soldiers. Since 9/11 that has meant deploying them to the Middle East. Ideally, the guard would prefer to deploy one year out of five, but the demands of a long, drawn-out conflict have required some to spend as many as eight out of 15 years overseas.

“It’s had a tremendous impact on families and individuals, so we had to get better at this,” Burton says. “The DOD (Department of Defense) has learned that we need to ensure the overall emotional health of people in uniform. We are more open about talking about these things and getting them the assistance they need when they return.”

Burton has hard-earned sympathy for such matters. Those under his command know that he has done more than sit behind a desk, that he isn’t sending them to do something he hasn’t done himself. He has seen all of the above, and that is why he keeps that list tucked into his hat.

Burton grew up in Payson. Like most teens, he gravitated to sports — high school track, cross country and wrestling. By then, he had already planned his future: “I felt I had a couple of things I needed to do,” he said.

Specifically, he planned to serve his faith and his country. His father and two uncles had fought wars in Korea or World War II or both, and eventually he would add Iraq to the list of family wars.

“I thought a lot of my father and uncles,” he says. “(The military) seemed like the right thing to do.”

His father tried to discourage him, but, as Burton puts it, “That’s all I ever really wanted to do.”

He served an LDS Church mission on a Canadian Indian reservation where the average winter temperature was 35 degrees below zero, preparing him for harsh conditions he would experience in his military career. As soon as he returned home he enrolled at BYU and enlisted in the National Guard. He soon decided he would rather be an officer and enrolled in the Army ROTC program while continuing to serve in the guard. He left school early without a degree so he could begin serving in the Army (he finished his sociology degree two years later at State University of New York).

For the next six years, he completed the Army police school in Alabama and then served in the 7th U.S. Corps in Colorado and the 4th Infantry Division in Europe. Having seen his children change schools four times in one year and knowing his parents were getting older, he quit the Army in 1991 and returned home, where he signed up for full-time duty in the Utah National Guard.

“By that time I decided I loved it and wanted to make a career of it,” he says.

After holding a variety of leadership positions for the next decade, he was assigned as commander of the 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion from 2002. A year later, he received eight days notice that he and 500 of the men in his command would be deployed to Iraq for a year as part of the initial ground war there. Among many other things, they performed IED-defeat and route-clearance missions, searching for explosives and eliminating them. “It was not fun,” he says. Once in Baghdad, his battalion was tasked with improving embassy security and responding to bombings. They were often the first on the scene of an explosion.

“It was hand-digging through rubble looking for bodies, or parts of them,” he says. “It was very gruesome. A lot of death and destruction. … I went to lots of funerals. We lost people every day in Iraq.”

Like most Guardsmen, he had to be a jack of all trades. When the Iraqi Republican Guard saw that Baghdad was going to fall, it released the animals from the city zoo, allowing hyenas, lions and bears to run loose in the city.

“We got the job of repairing the cages and luring the animals into the cages,” says Burton. And how did he lure lions into a cage? “We put a donkey in the cage and left the door open," he said.

At the time, Iraq was attempting to transition to new money. Burton and his men were responsible for picking up the old money from banks and divesting it. The money was still valid currency and therefore attracted unwanted attention.

“There were several ambushes, several firefights,” he says. “It was killing. We had eyeball-to-eyeball engagement with the enemy.”

He tempers this by recalling the hundreds of kind interactions between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi men, women and children, many of whom expressed a desire to become American soldiers when they grew up.

“We tried very hard to be kind,” Burton says. “There were moments where we found ourselves in a position where we had to fight back. But we tried to be kind. … We see ourselves as people who speed relief and comfort. I never met anyone in my career who says they enjoy the other aspect of it. We do what we have to do.”

During Burton’s tour of Iraq, his best friend was killed in an ambush. Burton’s force was in the area and was ordered to pursue the killers, but by the time they arrived it was too late to exact revenge. He turns introspective again as he recalls a year in Iraq.

“It does change you in a way,” he begins. “These soldiers, they have a lot of adjusting to do when they come home, even if they didn’t see action. Being separated from family and the isolation, losing a semblance of your freedom because you can’t come and go — those are challenges. They have to be dealt with when they return.”

When asked about how this has affected him as a leader, he says: “The fact that you’ve felt those pains and challenges may make you a better leader. We think we should suffer with our troops. Leaders are very up close and personal. You’re with them. You share in those experiences.”

Burton was awarded the Bronze Star “for exceptionally meritorious service while serving as the commander for 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He distinguished himself as a superb leader and motivator of soldiers. His leadership and focus have set the conditions for the dramatic improvement of the infrastructure of Baghdad. ... His performance in a combat zone is in keeping with the finest traditions of military history and reflects great credit upon himself … and the United States Army.”

In 2006, Burton moved to Pennsylvania and earned a master’s degree in strategic studies at the U.S. Army War College, preparing him for more leadership roles, which followed quickly. In 2008, he was named assistant adjutant general, just months before he was promoted to brigadier general. In 2012, he was promoted to major general and to adjutant general of the Utah guard. For each promotion ceremony, family members — his wife, Charn, their three children, parents, grandchildren — pinned the rank on his uniform.

“One of General Burton’s favorite sayings is, ‘Leaders are never first in the lunch line,’” says Brig. Gen. Dallen Atack, who oversees the Army guard under Burton. “He believes leadership is a calling to serve the soldiers and not a position of superiority. He is truly dedicated to the welfare of all the soldiers and airmen in his command.”

Burton never expected his military career to last beyond those first six years in the Army, but here he is 35 years later.

“It’s been fraught with challenges and pain, but it’s made me better,” he says. “I joined because of a certain patriotism. I’m in for the same reasons I joined initially. I am much prouder of the Army now than then. We’ve improved greatly. The military is an honest playing field and we live by loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com