It took a public fall from grace and a drunken driving arrest for Mike Burton to confront and defeat the personal demons that started consuming him in Southeast Asia four decades ago.
Now the former Portland-area politician and public official is on a mission to help others like him, military veterans who need help obtaining all the benefits they are owed — including suicide prevention counseling.
"Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. Nineteen of them have never received services. Most of those who receive services don't commit suicide," said the 78-year-old Burton.
The most recent report released last month by the Veterans Administration found veterans commit suicide more than twice as high as that of the general population.
Burton served on the Metro Council from 1979 to 1982; in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1985 to 1995; and as the executive officer of Metro from 1995 to 2003. But despite his accomplishments in those positions, he may be best remembered now for two crimes in 2011 after he had become a vice provost at Portland State University.
First he was accused of falsely billing PSU for $4,500 in personal expenses during a trip to Europe. Then he was arrested for drunken driving.
The accusations seemed completely out of character because Burton had never been accused of doing anything illegal before. But he confessed to them, repaid PSU, was sentenced to probation for the financial charge, entered a diversion program for the DUII charge, and moved to Vancouver, Washington.
"What happened then was a turning point in my life," Burton said.
Impetus for change
Last year, Burton spoke publicly about them for the first time in an interview with Clark County Today, an online newspaper. He said the back-to-back scandals were actually the best things that ever happened to him, although he insists the situation at PSU was the result of a misunderstanding.
Together, they prompted him to seek help from the Veterans Administration and to finally deal with the serious problems that began when he served in U.S. Air Force, where he received his commission in 1962 after graduating from Oregon State University.
As a member of the Air Commandos — now Special Operations — Burton said he was sent to assist with the CIA's secret operations in Laos because the Air Force mistakenly thought he spoke French, like some of the leaders of the Hmong tribesmen recruited by the CIA there.
After he arrived, Burton said the image of the U.S. military he formed watching John Wayne movies quickly collapsed. Burton thought there was no coherent strategy for winning the war, something he blamed on politics. He also saw the damage inflicted by bombing missions and Agent Orange defoliant that did not seem to be accomplishing anything. And when America pulled out of the war, Burton felt the country abandoned the tribesmen that fought in the secret war, and he was consumed with guilt.
"We were able to get 3,500 out and had to leave 35,000 behind," Burton said of the results of a last-ditch mission he participated in.
Even more personally — although he did not know it at the time — a back injury on a mission kept getting worse and eventually led to a dependency on painkillers and alcohol. The fact that he was officially prohibited from talking about his covert missions added to the stress, although he is now working with someone trying to document the secret war in Laos.
Despite a successful public career after more than 20 years of active and reserve service, Burton said his personal life was in shambles. He was angry all the time and could not maintain personal relationships. After keeping things under control for most of his adult life, Burton said he did not realize how bad things had become when he was hired at PSU, where he needed a walker to get around the campus because of back and hip problems.
After calling the VA Crisis Line following his DUII arrest, Burton underwent 14 months of out-patient rehabilitation. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One reason he moved to Vancouver was to be closer to the clinic. Another was to help put his past behind him.
Today, Burton has had one hip replaced and is in the preliminary stages of a second hip replacement surgery. But he spends much of his time volunteering for veterans organizations. Among other things, he is co-chair of the executive board of the Community Military Appreciation Committee, which advocates for veterans, helps maintain the historic Vancouver Barracks, and sponsors Veterans Day and Memorial Day events in Clark County.
Burton also counsels veterans, their spouses and their survivors about how to qualify for their guaranteed benefits. He praises the Portland Veterans Administration as being one of the best in the country. According to Burton, many veterans have so suppressed the memories of their service, they have not kept their military paperwork or learned what they and their loved ones are entitled to receive. And he recognizes himself in many of the veterans who are hardest to reach.
"The younger ones especially, the ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they deny they have problems and don't want any help. I was that way once, and I can talk to them about that. I'm not always successful, but I feel I have to try," said Burton, who is currently married to an artist named Donna.
And he supports Handicapped International and Legacies of War, an organization working to clean up the estimated 80 million pounds of unexploded ordnance still left in Laos.
Veterans Special Section
To find this year's collection of stories about local veterans, go online to pamplinmedia.com/portland-tribune-news/special-edition
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