War and after

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Thomas Burke talks about PTSD and his return to the classroom in a TEDxYale talk here. View full image

Divinity student

Thomas Burke ’18MDiv.

Age: 27. 
Hometown: Bethel, Connecticut.

Marine Corps, 2007–2010. Deployed to Iraq in 2008 for eight months and to Afghanistan in 2009 for eight months.

The boys of the village liked to tag along with Lance Corporal Thomas Burke while he patrolled among the mud houses and irrigation canals of Nawa in eastern Afghanistan. Part of Burke’s appeal was that he spoke Pashto and kept a beard, as their fathers did.

Burke still keeps a photograph from 2009 on his phone. It shows him walking down a rutted gravel road in Nawa, a dozen cheerful Afghan boys trotting beside and behind him. At 19, Burke looks happy. “Not many things put smiles on my face, but playing with them would,” he recalls.

Burke had signed up for the Marine Corps two years before, in the fall of his senior year of high school. He had grown up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of five children whose parents held three jobs. Although Burke put little effort into school, he took his religion seriously. He was six when he began wearing an alb and black leather shoes to serve at the altar of Saint Mary’s Church in Bethel. He liked the order and hierarchy of Catholicism, and having decided against becoming a priest, he looked for something similar in the Marines.

He went straight to boot camp after high school graduation. As a turret gunner in Iraq, and then as a marksman in Afghanistan, he says, “I was really good at my job. I have good eyes, I’m athletic, and I’m good at following orders.”

Traveling for war, he began to think about commonalities and differences among cultures. He found beauty in Islam as he awakened each day to the call to prayer. He saw how his upbringing had shaped his attempts to make contact with the divine. “If I was the same person born in Afghanistan, I would probably become a very devout Muslim,” he says.

In January 2010, a throng of local boys found a bomb and proudly carried it toward the Marine compound to turn it in. The bomb exploded. It killed seven or eight of the boys and maimed others, Burke says. He helped load chunks of bone and flesh onto an open trailer, then poured bleach on his hands to remove the blood of boys he’d played soccer with. “My job was to kill people, and I had no problem doing that, because that was my job. I had trouble cleaning up after dead children.” For weeks, he passed ground stained with the boys’ blood.

He says he’d already been diagnosed with PTSD after his previous deployment. One night, two months after the boys died, Burke woke up crying. At that time, eight of the Marines in his platoon had been sent to the Battle of Marjah and the remaining 24 men took over all the patrol and guard shifts. They barely slept. When Burke awoke that night, he left the compound and walked to the Helmand River. Because he wanted his comrades—not the enemy or a local child—to find his body, he silenced his rifle, then switched off the safety and put the muzzle in his mouth. He hesitated when he saw that the sun was rising, its reflection gold on the river. It was at that moment that Lance Corporal Doug Griffin saw Burke and began shouting, “Thomas! Thomas!” Griffin had awakened in a separate tent and had felt uneasy about Burke, then gone to look for him. He ran to Burke and embraced him.

Looking back, Burke describes his near suicide as a physical reaction to unrelenting stress. “My body wanted to kill itself—which is very alien, for an animal to want to self-destruct.”

A few months later, his deployment completed, he went AWOL from the Marine Corps base in Hawaii. He traveled for a month on a cocaine binge. After that, he agreed to a less-than-honorable discharge in return for PTSD treatment. Treatment turned out to be a month in a Department of Defense psychiatric unit. His discharge disqualified him from all veteran benefits, including health care.

Burke later won health benefits and limited education benefits based on his PTSD diagnosis, but he lived in poverty as he raced through his bachelor’s degree in two years. During his first year after enrolling at Yale Divinity School, he went without electricity to save money. This year he lives in university housing.

Burke spent his winter break with several other young veterans, lobbying members of Congress to make discharge upgrades more accessible. He links other-than-honorable discharges to the high rate of suicide among veterans. (Each day, 18 to 22 veterans of all wars kill themselves, according to an often-cited study.) Burke argues that men and women are often denied honorable discharges because of violations, like his own illegal drug use, that stem from trauma suffered during military service. Thus although veterans with “bad paper” are among the most vulnerable, “they don’t have access to the communities that would support them—school, the VFW, the VA.” In March, one of the members of Congress with whom Burke met, Colorado Republican Mike Coffman, introduced the bipartisan Fairness for Veterans Act.

Burke did feel cared for when he came home. “This community loved and supported me when I returned home from war,” he explains. “Because of that, I feel a debt of gratitude.” He is running for the state House of Representatives. “It’s another pastoral opportunity for me,” says Burke, who plans to be a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Burke considers himself fortunate. “No matter what happens and how hard I want to hurt myself, I have so much greater opportunity than 99 percent of the world. I have a very easy life.”

A caramel-colored service dog named Rosie has provided an anchor for him for four years. “Cerebrally, I want to live, so I was looking for a reason to stay alive, and she shows me unconditional love. She protects me,” says Burke. “I can’t let anything happen to me. I’m responsible for another life.”