By Emily Williams
As a retired major general of the Alabama Army National Guard, it has been ingrained in David Burford to work “by, with and through others.”
Burford’s father, 2nd Lt. Macon C. Pippen, was a veteran of World War II who died, partially due to his battle wounds, when Burford was 10 years old.
“Somewhere in that 10 years I gained a respect for what he did,” Burford said. “So, when I went to college, I went through ROTC just to see if I liked it.”
He liked it so much that he left Georgia Tech as a distinguished military graduate with a chemical engineering degree and status as a second lieutenant, moving on to serve on active duty for the first five years. That first step in college led him toward a career in the military for nearly four decades, becoming a member of the Green Berets, and, surprisingly to him, a two-star general for the Alabama Army National Guard.
His service has taken him all over the world, from being stationed in Kansas, Georgia and Alabama; to serving abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Central and South America and the Philippines. He has rescued flood victims, provided shelter during ice storms, served during tornadoes and met with U.S. ambassadors, presidents and other dignitaries. When he retired in February 2011, he was the highest-ranking green beret in the Army’s reserve unit.
“I never expected to be on-duty for 38 years, nevertheless be a two-star,” he said. “I didn’t plan this; it just kind of evolved.”
Since retiring, Burford has devoted himself to helping other veterans who didn’t transition as well back to civilian life.
On Nov. 4, he will speak at the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park, an opportunity to share with the public how important it is to lend respect and support to veterans, especially those who are in need.
Finding His Calling
When he first entered the armed forces following college, Burford spent five years as a field artillery officer for a four-star general whose job involved running an ROTC summer camp. It was there that he met green berets who instructed on survival skills.
“The more I watched them, I said to myself that was something I really want to do,” he said. “So I left active duty to come back to Alabama because Alabama has a Special Forces National Guard unit.”
Burford found his passion and ended up commanding that unit as he went through the Army’s Special Forces school and received his green beret as a captain in 1984.
Through his career in Special Forces with the National Guard, he found a skill set and a group of people whose attitude and sense of respect resonated with him.
The portion of the Green Beret creed, “By, with and through others,” is one that Burford found to be especially important in his experiences on duty.
In any situation, Burford said, he and his fellow green berets had to maintain a sense of “unmatched perseverance,” having to be inventive in finding solutions to whatever obstacles they faced. They also had to work together outside of their seniority – a colonel might have a good idea but a sergeant may have an even better idea.
He recalled a moment when he was stationed in Afghanistan and he was working with a group of men in the Air Force who were planning to burn a C130 aircraft that had gone off the runway and was stuck in the sand.
“We had an old sergeant from West Virginia, just a Green Beret sergeant, who said, ‘Don’t do that. I work at a railroad. Let me show you how we get engines back on the track,’” Burford recalled. “And he got some logs and stuff and rolled this plane back up on the runway.”
In addition to seeing the world, Burford is quick to say that one of the great things about his service was having the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most interesting people.
“We had a Green Beret sergeant that we mobilized to Haiti when Haiti collapsed, and he happened to be a constitutional attorney for the state of Alabama, but he was a sergeant,” he said. “He re-wrote the Haitian constitution by hand, out of his head.”
Living Two Lives
Though it was a highly fulfilling career for Burford, being a member of the armed forces is a sacrifice no matter where you stand. For Burford, that meant living two lives. One as a green beret and one working for the Southern Company, all while being a husband and father to three children.
From college to February 2011, when he retired, Burford had to remain prepared for the moment when he would be called into duty.
“On the morning of 9/11, I was actually in a watermelon field,” Burford said.
He was in Florida for the Southern Company, looking to buy a plot of land to put a jet engine on so the company could compete with the area’s local utilities.
“So, I was in Tampa, and my phone rang, and it was my oldest daughter,” he said. “She was hysterical, because I was supposed to be at the Pentagon that day.”
He explained the change of plans and she told him to go turn on his car radio and listen to the news.
“We hung up and my cellphone rang again. It was my two-star boss at Fort Bragg.” He told Burford to get to Fort Bragg immediately.
Burford was one of the first three people mobilized in the nation. When he got the call, the mobilization order was for Operation Infinite Justice, which was later changed to Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I told my wife when we were married, because I was already in Special Forces, ‘You know, one day that phone may ring and I’ll have to go. Are you OK with that?’ She said sure and, sure enough, that happened the morning of 9/11, and I disappeared for almost three years,” he said. “But she was still there when I got back.”
Living two lives – one as a civilian and one in the Army – becomes a requirement for the men and women who serve in the reserves and guard. During the week, they work in civilian roles, and on the weekends, they train to be effective at defending the national security.
“I lived two lives for a long time where, on Monday through Friday, I’m wearing a suit and going downtown to work,” he said. “Friday night I put on camouflage and run through the woods all weekend, but Monday morning, I’m back in a suit.”
After a while, Burford said, that transition back and forth becomes a habit and it gets increasingly easier to transition.
It was also helpful to have a wife who was understanding of his duty, especially with two daughters and a son at home.
Burford’s wife, Susan, was the daughter of a veteran, her father having been a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge.
“He and I were great friends from the get-go,” Burford said.
When Burford retired from the service, he had a successful life to look forward to, including his wife, three successful adult children and his job and then retirement in July from the Southern Company. There are many veterans who don’t have the same support when they return to civilian life.
‘It Changes People’
“Being away from your family, going through traumatic combat events and getting shot at is no fun. It changes people,” he said. “And I think you have to recognize that these people are changed when they get back.”
Though he kept a low profile during his days in uniform, for safety purposes, Burford noted that retirement has given him the chance to become an active supporter of veterans who aren’t getting enough support outside of the service and inspire others to do the same.
Burford chooses to spend his volunteer hours serving local nonprofits, including being on the board of directors for Vettes-4-Vets; vice president for the National Veterans Day Foundation, which hosts Birmingham’s annual Veterans Day Parade; and working with Three Hots and a Cot, among others.
Once you get out of the service, Burford said, you don’t have the same structure you left.
“That and the general population you run into are not as committed to getting things done as much as military people are,” he said. “It’s a really different mindset. Military people do for others.”
Through his volunteer work, Burford has met with many veterans facing huge obstacles in their lives due to the negative effects of their service, the bulk of those issues being homelessness and underemployment.
“You’ve got guys with combat experience and college degrees who are flipping hamburgers because nobody will give them a chance,” Burford said.
Through Vettes-4-Vets, Burford and his fellow volunteers are seeking to make the community more aware of what local veterans who are struggling need to be successful. The organization is supported for the most part by Corvette owners, though Burford said he doesn’t own one, and it gives 100 percent of the money it raises to help local veterans wherever the money is most needed, whether that be paying for housing, bills or their child’s college tuition.
“We are funding a study in Shelby County to conduct a veterans needs assessment, to try and find out what they really need,” he said. “Let’s get out and talk to them and see.”
Tackling homelessness in another way, Burford is passionate about his work with Three Hots and a Cot, which was recognized by the President George W. Bush Center as one of 25 organizations in the nation to take part in a military service initiative to help improve services to post-9/11 veterans.
The organization receives donated houses, refurbishes them and uses them to house and rehabilitate at-risk veterans.
“We’d put a handful of vets in there with a guy that had been in the program for a while; so he was kind of the resident manager,” Burford said, and that manager would assign duties to each resident. “It put them back in that bootcamp mentality. Giving them back the structure they didn’t have.”
In his retirement, it is Burford’s duty to continue to work, “by, with and through others,” to get the job done.
That job is supporting his fellow veterans in the hope they can be successful, and that can only be achieved by sharing the message with others, civilians who don’t have that experience of serving their country.
“Birmingham has a rather considerably sized veterans population and, as a result, a considerable number of vets who have been affected in some way or another, some in a good way and some not so good,” Burford said. “The ones that are not good, I think because they have chosen to defend their country, we need to defend them against whatever they’re going through.”