On National Vietnam War Veterans Day, Vancouver resident Michael Burton wants to take the day to remind vets that it is never too late to reach out for help
VANCOUVER — It took almost 40 years after leaving Southeast Asia before Michael Burton realized he was still in battle, that he needed help.
Decades of hiding in plain sight, he become a major player in Oregon politics as a state representative from Portland and then the head of (Oregon) Metro.
All the while, he was suffering. He relied on painkillers and liquor, he said, keeping it a secret from others for so long.
His actions were taking a toll.
There was a public fall from grace in 2011 — two incidents that required law and order — before he reached out.
“It took a crisis like that to get me to seek help,” he said.
“I couldn’t sustain long-term relationships. Eventually, things would boil up,” Burton recalled, discussing his history this week from his Vancouver home. “I figured no one could understand what was happening.”
How could they? He did not even know how he got to that point.
Looking back, he said he cannot be certain that he was suicidal, but he knew he was in danger. He picked up the phone to call the Veterans Crisis Line.
Burton said he underwent 14 months of out-patient rehabilitation after being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Now, it is his mission in life to assist other veterans in getting care, receiving their benefits.
“You can’t help fix something else if you haven’t fixed yourself first,” Burton said.
Today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Burton wants to take this day to remind vets that it is never too late to reach out for help.
Not just Vietnam veterans. Through his work with the Community Military Appreciation Committee (CMAC) and other organizations, Burton has met many veterans from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows some of them are suffering now, and many will suffer later in life.
Veterans Affairs is there for them, Burton said. The VA campus in Vancouver is where Burton received most of his aid in his struggles with PTSD. He said that is one of the reasons he moved to Clark County.
CMAC is an organization that runs Veterans Day and Memorial Day events in Clark County, as well as other community salutes to the military. A ceremony for Vietnam and Vietnam Era veterans is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. April 7 at Vancouver Mall.
Burton appreciates any public support for Vietnam vets because they were treated so poorly upon returning home.
“Vietnam vets hid out. The public wasn’t very happy with the Vietnam War, understandably. But then you have people telling you, ‘Shame on you.’ A lot of Vietnam vets went underground,” Burton said.
A graduate of Oregon State, Burton received his commission with the U.S. Air Force in 1962. He was in the regular service for 22 years then 16 more in the reserves, retiring as a colonel.
He had missions in Vietnam as well as in Laos, part of what was then called Air Commando but is now Special Ops.
“I went there with a John Wayne attitude,” Burton said.
“It didn’t take me very long to realize this was not a good deal. It was a mess. We didn’t have a strategy,” Burton said. “We didn’t know what our goals were.”
He witnessed the “horrific” devastation of the bombings. He remembered a Laotian begging the Americans to leave or he and his friends would be killed. That man died a week later, Burton said.
“We go out, come back, bomb the hell out of everything,” he said, but nothing made sense.
“It was very frustrating for me.”
It also lit a fuse for an internal breakdown that would come years later. The war ended in Vietnam, but it did not feel over for those who witnessed so much carnage.
Still, Burton made big strides in politics, serving five terms as a state representative in Oregon and then two terms as the executive officer of Metro. After leaving politics, he became a vice provost at Portland State University.
That ended in 2011 when he resigned prior to an audit that revealed he falsely claimed $4,500 in travel expenses. (He pleaded guilty to official misconduct and repaid the money, according to The Oregonian.) Later in 2011, he was arrested under the suspicion of drunken driving and entered a diversion problem.
“Probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Burton says now. “Another wake-up call. Fortunately, no one got hurt.”
Never before then in trouble with the law, Burton said he does not recall much from those days, the effects of taking so many painkillers, “washing them down” with bourbon.
“Eventually, it all caught up with me,” he said. “I sought help from the VA, and I got it.”
Now, he is better prepared for what he describes as his GAG effect — Grief, Anger, Guilt. He had to relive, in writing, his painful experiences.
He is 77 now, trying his best to give his best to others like him.
Besides the Community Military Appreciation Committee, he supports Handicapped International and Legacies of War in an effort to “clean up the mess we left in Laos,” he said. Burton noted there are still an estimated 80 million pounds of unexploded ordnance in the country.
“This is my penance, in a sense,” Burton said. “We screwed it up. Let’s see if we can clean it up.”
In this instance, he was talking about Laos. He knows, though, that the same message could be interpreted closer to home.
Burton had to clean up his own act before he could assist others. That is his mission now.
“Everybody deals with their issues in different ways. Some use the 12-steps. Others find religion. Mine is community involvement,” he said.
“I’m trying to connect people with their benefits. Guys came home from Vietnam and the last thing they wanted to do was see ‘The Man’ again,” Burton said. “A lot of people missed out on a lot of stuff.”
But it is not too late. Michael Burton is proof of that.
“There is a lot of need. Vietnam vets, as they get older, have accumulated a lot of needs. We want to get them help.
“Vancouver is a very pro-positive, veteran community.”