Face of Defense: Soldier Trades Desk for Machine Gun

WASHINGTON — His posi­tion was under heavy ene­my fire when a round hit Army Pfc. Jonathan B. Bur­son in the chest.

Combat Outpost Monti in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province
Army Pfc. Jonathan B. Bur­son talks to chil­dren out­side Com­bat Out­post Mon­ti in east­ern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, Aug. 14, 2010. Bur­son gave up his civil­ian career to join the infantry last year.
U.S. Army pho­to by Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte
Click to enlarge

“It was almost sur­re­al,” the 28-year-old gun­ner said. “I could feel the frag­ments of the bul­let hit my face.”

Com­pa­ny A, 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 327th Infantry Reg­i­ment, Task Force No Slack, was hold­ing an over­watch posi­tion in east­ern Afghanistan’s Kunar province as part of Oper­a­tion Strong Eagle on June 27 when the fire­fight start­ed.

Bur­son was on the M240B machine gun. The oth­er heavy weapon, an auto­mat­ic grenade launch­er, had stopped work­ing, caus­ing him to draw even more fire. One of many rock­et-pro­pelled grenades being fired at the unit explod­ed 20 feet in front of his posi­tion before he was shot.

When he checked him­self for injuries, Bur­son found the back of his bal­lis­tic chest plate bowed out instead of the hole he expect­ed to find. “I got back on my gun and start­ed fir­ing again,” he said.

Bur­son, who is from Katy, Texas, did not take the typ­i­cal route to becom­ing an infantry­man. He was work­ing as struc­tur­al design­er for an engi­neer­ing com­pa­ny in Hous­ton when he decid­ed to join the Army last year.

He ini­tial­ly want­ed to become a civil­ian pilot, but dis­cov­ered the dif­fi­cul­ties of hold­ing a job while also going to school and afford­ing the cost of flight lessons. Instead, he worked his way up in the engi­neer­ing com­pa­ny to the point where he draft­ed three-dimen­sion­al con­struc­tion plans on com­put­ers. By then, Bur­son found him­self sti­fled by life in an office.

“I was just tired of the dai­ly grind, … 50 to 60 hours behind a desk,” he said.

Now, he pulls guard shifts at Com­bat Out­post Mon­ti and patrols one of the more dan­ger­ous areas of Afghanistan with his fel­low sol­diers – earn­ing a salary that’s one-third of what he was mak­ing in the civil­ian world.

“My friends all thought I was crazy,” he said. “It’s some­thing I always want­ed to do. I just decid­ed to go for it.”

The choice was not entire­ly out of char­ac­ter. As an avid fan of the out­doors, he likes hunt­ing and camp­ing, and as a fan of the adren­a­line rush, he likes fast cars and motor­cy­cles. Bur­son is sched­uled to attend Ranger school to become a mem­ber of the spe­cial oper­a­tions forces after his deploy­ment, and he seri­ous­ly is con­sid­er­ing a career in the mil­i­tary. He said he chose the infantry because he didn’t want to wind up behind a desk again.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not always excit­ing. It’s hard work. At the same time, it’s reward­ing.”

His pla­toon leader, Army 1st Lt. Ryan D. Krolic­ki of Mil­wau­kee, described Bur­son as a thinker who uses his head dur­ing patrols. He said he usu­al­ly places him as a gun­ner in vehi­cles, because Bur­son keeps a good sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness and lets him know what the vehi­cle com­man­der needs to know.

“I like to have him in my tur­ret, because he’s good at it,” Krolic­ki said.

Burson’s fam­i­ly has always been sup­port­ive of the mil­i­tary, but was wor­ried about his safe­ty. He doesn’t tell his fam­i­ly every­thing that hap­pens, he said, and only planned to tell his moth­er about his close call when he went home for leave in August.

“It made me recon­sid­er my reli­gious beliefs,” he said of the inci­dent. “I couldn’t believe I sur­vived the fire­fight. It didn’t seem like it would end well.”

His com­pa­ny has suf­fered heavy loss­es since arriv­ing at Mon­ti. From May until August, it had nine fatal­i­ties and many wound­ed. Bur­son said he was close with some of the sol­diers who have died, and deal­ing with the deaths has been dif­fi­cult.

Two of his fel­low sol­diers were wound­ed dur­ing the June 27 fire­fight.

“It’s hard to say why things hap­pen the way they do,” Bur­son said.

Many sol­diers at Mon­ti live togeth­er in open bar­racks, shar­ing a liv­ing space with lit­tle pri­va­cy. Dur­ing their down time, they work out, watch movies, use the Inter­net at the base morale cen­ter, and joke around togeth­er. Bur­son described his unit as almost like a fam­i­ly.

“You real­ly couldn’t ask for bet­ter,” he said, not­ing the addi­tion­al pride he has in his divi­sion. “It’s a real hon­or to wear the 101st [Air­borne Divi­sion] patch.”

Bur­son, an agnos­tic, said his moth­er prays for his safe­ty con­stant­ly.

“She says there are angels watch­ing over me, so maybe she’ll be com­fort­ed that it’s work­ing.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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