Willie Burton was drafted in 1968 from Tuscaloosa and he saw constant combat for 13 months as an infantryman in Vietnam.
But he decided to make the Army a career.
“Enjoyed the Army,” the retired chief warrant officer three said. “I think everybody has to find where they fit. The Army was a good fit for me.”
Burton served in the infantry 1968-70, reenlisted in 1971 and went to ordnance, and retired in 1995 at Redstone after 25 years. He started his Army civilian career here in 2000 and he is operation lead for JROTC in the Army Cadet Command. His office is in the One Stop building but his actual headquarters is in Savannah, Georgia.
The Northport native graduated from Riverside High School in Northport in 1966. One of eight children – five boys and three girls, “I was number three” – he was working when he got drafted. He had basic training and advanced individual training for infantry at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The 19-year-old private first class arrived in Vietnam in July 1968. He joined Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. They were based out of Lai Khe, South Vietnam. Most of Burton’s year of combat missions were for search and destroy.
“It was pretty much every day because if you weren’t in combat you were preparing. You were still out in the field,” he said.
“Just trying to stay alive, man. Young person, thrown in the war you didn’t know what you were doing actually. You learn day to day how to take care of yourself and others.”
Part 362 in series
He said he most remembers the people that he met and the friends that he made. He is a life member of the 1st of the 2nd, 1st Infantry Division association which tries to meet every five years. “Of course the numbers are getting thinner and thinner now,” he said. Burton last attended the meeting in 2014 in St. Louis which drew 26 people.
For his Vietnam service, Burton received the Bronze Star Medal and the Vietnam campaign ribbon.
In August 1969, Burton arrived at Fort Carson, Colorado. He came to Redstone for training at the Ordnance school in 1974. He was stationed here from 1978-80 and again from 1986-88. He received a bachelor’s in business through the University of Maryland extension service in 1978.
At his four-member office, “we actually oversee all the JROTC programs in the state of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana,” he said. The approximately 220 programs for the three states combined include 94 in Alabama. Burton travels an average of two weeks monthly to visit the JROTC units at various high schools.
He and his wife of six years, Angela, a retired command sergeant major, reside in Madison. He has a stepdaughter and a grandson.
At 74 Burton enjoys restoring old cars. He has a 100% disability rating from Veterans Affairs.
Burton shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“If we’re commemorating the people who actually served and survived, it’s a good thing,” he said. “But if we’re celebrating the war, I don’t want to have anything to do with that one.”
Editor’s note: This is the 362nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.