The war in Vietnam was in full swing when Roy Burmeister, who grew up in the Rothbury area, reached draft age. Though he had never considered a career in the military, when his papers came, Roy — like so many young men of the era — answered the call.
Even now, after serving with the military for over 40 years, Roy remembers his thoughts on the day his draft notice arrived.
“I graduated in ’67 and was drafted in ’69,” Roy says. “I had very mixed feelings about my draft notice. I knew what was going on in Vietnam and I knew what I was going to end up doing.”
After serving his tour of duty with the 1st Infantry Division, Roy returned home in 1971 and joined the Army Reserves. Though he may not have realized it at the time, he had found his life’s calling, serving his country.
As is often the case in the military, Roy moved around from job to job as he advanced through the ranks, “cross-training” with the military police, field artillery, and other duties. In 1992, he made command sergeant major in the Reserves, while still with the field artillery. Shortly after that, the army turned over all all combat arms to the National Guard, for reasons that remain a mystery to Roy.
“Politicians way above me made that call,” Roy says.
In 2003, Roy was deployed to Ozbekestan (which he explains is the correct spelling, not “Uzbekistan,” as usually appears in American media reports), Afghanistan. While serving there during two separate tours — the last of which ended in 2008 — Roy’s job was to provide forward logistics and support the operations of the active army.
The suggestion that Roy’s unit might have been something less than “active,” only elicits a smile.
“I got shot at and blown up once,” Roy casually explains, as if dodging bullets and IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) is all in a day’s work. “I have been around the block once or twice.”
Roy’s then-girlfriend and now-wife, Gail Morrison, was at home when she heard the news of his most recent brush with death.
“All I know is that it scared the bejeezus out of me,” Gail remembers.
In addition to aiding the active army, one of Roy’s primary functions in Afghanistan was to serve as a sort of military social worker, helping the indigenous population through a variety of almost unimaginably difficult situations.
Providing services to a refugee camp took up much of Roy’s time. It is military functions such as these that never get press coverage, Roy says.
“The media puts down what it wants to put down,” Roy adds. “But I know we took care of those children at that refugee camp. We did major food drops there. They usually lose 10 percent of the children because of the weather every winter. That year, they lost only two infants; that was because of what we did.”
Roy admits the army’s humanitarian efforts often go unappreciated by the older generation of Afghans; the hope, he says, is for the future.
“We know we’re not going to change this generation,” he says. “This one is too set in their ways. But we’re working to change the next. If we can influence the children coming up, this is good.”
Still, many would find it difficult to care deeply for a populace in which many consider you the enemy. But as Roy puts it, “We’re human. We care just as much as everybody.
“People back home have a vague idea what’s going on there, but you can’t really tell them. If they knew all the humanitarian stuff we’re doing, they might think differently, but nobody talks about that. You get attached to these children and start thinking, God, that’s the heaviest mined area I’ve ever seen. It’s so easy to get hurt.”
Gail Morrison (distantly related to rock ’n’ roll icon Jim Morrison) is no stranger to the ways of military life. She enrolled in the Army back in 1964.
“They wanted me to go in as an officer because I had a nursing degree,” Gail says. “But I would have wound up a captain and at the time I was engaged to a man named Blye. There was no way I was going to be ‘Captain Blye.’”
Instead she served as enlisted and eventually developed 11 different military occupational specialties, including clerk typist, nursing, fuel and resupply, truck driver and Chief Legal NCO. For a short while, she was stationed in Hanoi, but was discharged soon after when she became pregnant.
Two children and several years later, Gail re-upped for a tour in the Reserves.
“My husband pitched a fit, but that was all right,” Gail explains. “What wasn’t all right is that he used to take it out on me and I often went into work with bruises.”
It wasn’t many months after her previous husband died that Gail’s daughters — Sylvia June and Hellen Rose Anne — convinced her to start dating again. Shortly thereafter, she met Roy.
“I had literally sat down and prayed, ‘God, this is what I want in a man. I’d like him to go in the way of God, be in the military, and be Native American.’”
Three weeks later Gail met her new Sgt. Major; Roy, a Blackfoot on his mother’s side.
“When he walked in and introduced himself to me, I thought, ‘Oh, boy,’” Gail says. “Well, we’ve been together since ’98, but just recently tied the knot when he came home from Afghanistan. He brought me the ring when he came home. He had bought the stones in Afghanistan and had a Pakistani jeweler put the ring together. When he got home that morning, he had the ring with him.”
Though Gail’s tour of duty with the military was shorter by far than Roy’s, she achieved some impressive goals during her tenure, the most notable of which was being the first female drill sergeant in the history of the active army. Moreover, she trained men, something unheard of at the time, especially for a 30-year-old woman.
“I was with the Reserves at the time,” Gail explains. “When I pulled up, he (a recruit) said, ‘Hey, she’s a female.’ I told him to drop and give me 25 pushups. He thought he was going to have a heart attack and said so. I gave him another 25 and he never said another word to me.”
Gail, naturally soft-spoken even to this day, admits the hardest part of her job was to learn to project her voice in typical drill sergeant manner. The physical side of the job was less a problem for her.
“I can still run two miles in 18 minutes,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of firsts in my life and I’ve always been active.”
Now retired from the military, Gail teaches metaphysical classes, astrology and numerology every Thursday night at The Healing Center in Lakeview.
Roy, also retiring “in the next couple years,” says he’s not sure what he’s going to do to fill the hours.
“When you’ve been busy all your life, you don’t want to stop,” Roy says. “I don’t know. I used to build motorcycles. Maybe I’ll do that.”
Gail shakes her head, smiling. “He’s gonna build me my library first.”