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Coming home to Camden

Julian Burns, retired general served with Joint Chiefs of Staff

Posted: January 7, 2014 4:31 p.m.
Updated: January 8, 2014 5:00 a.m.

In recent days, Hezbollah, the Shi’a Islamic militant group and political party, reportedly moved missiles from storage bases in Syria to Lebanon. The missiles include Scud Ds that could target Israel. The news echoes fears Israel faced in December 1998 after the United States and United Kingdom conducted Operation Desert Fox, a bombing campaign on Iraqi targets. After the four-day operation, Israel and its American and U.K. partners worried that Iraq might fire Scud missiles against Israel -- something Iraq had done during the first Gulf War almost eight years earlier in January 1991.

Part of Operation Desert Fox included Joint Task Force Shining Presence, conducting joint exercises with Israeli air defense forces. Commanding the task force: Maj. Gen. Julian H. Burns Jr., deputy commander of V Corps.

Four months ago, Burns returned to his hometown of Camden after completing his education, giving his country more than 35 years of active service and a subsequent nine years working with BAE, a defense firm in Washington, D.C. Burns also joined The Spectrum Group in April. His clients with Spectrum include those in the fields of combat vehicles and soldier equipment, cyber, big data, Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and retrograde of deployed equipment, according to a press release.

Another retired Army general with Spectrum, Lt. Gen. John Caldwell, head of the company’s Army had this to say about Burns in the press release:

“Burns is an exceptionally experienced commander and thought-leader of Army, Special Ops, homeland defense, and counter-terrorism and counter insurgency strategy. We are lucky to have him on our team.”

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Stephen Loftus, Spectrum’s chairman and CEO said Burns adds a unique dimension to the firm’s capabilities.

“His extensive knowledge of the national security business and his distinguished military service will be an important asset to our national and international clients,” Loftus said in the press release. “We are delighted to have him on board.

Burns turned that knowledge and experience to the publication of his second reference book on one of the two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for whom he worked. The first, published in 2008, collected selected works by Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the 10th chairman of the JCS. The second, just released, covers the public papers of the late Adm. William Crowe Jr., Vessey’s successor as JCS Chairman.

He said the two men were different, but shared two important traits.

“There’s no one like these two men,” Burns said. “They were courageous in their political and military duties. They were very upright men. They were also very humorous and both loved a good joke.”

Burns’ publications are books that, for the most part, the general public may never see. They are intended to be used as reference material in select academic and military circles. However, Burns’ work on the books and his memories of working for both Vessey and Crowe, and in other capacities during his three and a half-decade military career, provides a window to what he considers a special point in modern American military history.

Military tradition

Just to the left after entering Burns’ home in Camden’s historic district is a small, wood-paneled office whose warm reddish-browns shrug off the grays of a drizzly Thursday morning. He and his wife, Ruth Ann’s, 14-year-old Golden Retriever, Toby, visits for a moment, then settles down out in the foyer.

The office is filled with books, photographs and -- next to one chair -- a saddle. The saddle belonged to his maternal grandfather, Col. John Wall, a member of the 1st U.S. Cavalry who saw action in Moros, Philippines. It serves as one of several reminders that Burns comes from a long tradition of military service. He is the third consecutive member of his family in as many generations to serve in the cavalry. By the time his father, Julian Burns Sr., served as a cavalryman, he and his comrades were fighting the Battle of the Bulge in Gen. George S. Patton’s tank army.

Other photographs and mementoes serve as reminders of a family tradition of military service going much further back. Among his ancestors: Christopher Gist, who fought in the French and Indian War; MG William Moultrie in the Revolutionary War; great-grandfathers Corneillious Burns and Moultrie Brailsford in the Kershaw Brigade during the Civil War; and Alexander Moultrie Brailsford in World War I. An uncle, Lt. Gen. John Wall, fought in Vietnam.

Side-by-side photographs on one wall show Corneillious and his brother, James Burns, who was killed at Gettysburg.

Burns graduated from Camden High School some 50 years ago and went on to West Point in New York. There, he graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree as a cavalry officer with Airborne-Ranger qualifications. He later earned a masters degree in Operations Research Systems Analysis from the University of South Carolina.

In addition to Operation Desert Fox, Burns’ 35 years of military service included, not necessarily in this order:

• Korea, commander of the demilitarized zone, or DMZ;

• Italy and the Mediterranean;

• the Balkans;

• Germany (as V Corps’ deputy commanding general);

• Sarajevo, as chief of operations for the Stabilization Force (SFOR), a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led multinational peacekeeping force deployed after the Bosnian war; and

• Fort Stewart, Ga., as assistant division commander for the 24th Infantry Division.

In 1999, Burns became deputy chief of staff for operations and plans of the 750,000-strong U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM).

He said one theme ran through all his assignments.

“The strength of the Army is its soldiers and the strength of our soldiers is their families,” Burns said. “They support the activities of active soldiers and the National Guard. The spouses -- and that can be husbands -- raise the families while members are deployed. We owe a debt of gratitude to our families.”

That includes his own family, especially Ruth Ann, he said, including his recent work on Crowe’s papers.

“I thank Ruth Ann for the use of the dining room table,” he said.

And the family tradition has continued with two of Burns’ three daughters.

“Joan is a nurse at Providence Hospital, lives in Columbia and raises the world’s greatest granddaughter,” Burns said. “Julia is in the special forces at Fort Bragg (N.C.) with her husband. And Jacqueline, she helped out with (Vessey’s) papers and is now with the Defense Department in D.C.”

Jacqueline, he revealed, is named for Vessey, whom others often called “Jack.”

In June 2003, the Chronicle-Independent reported Burns had just been recognized for his contributions to the U.S. Army’s war fighting capabilities and toward the development of the objective force during that year’s Armor Conference at Fort Knox, Ky.

Fellow Maj. Gen. Terry L. Tucker, commanding general of the Armor Center and Fort Knox, presented Burns with the Gen. Frederick M. Franks Jr. Award. At that point, Burns became the ninth recipient of the award, given to those who have made contributions to the armor community. The award is open to armor and cavalry active duty or reserve officers, non-commissioned officers or Department of the Army civilians.

The 2003 article also reported that Burns earned the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service, the Joint and Army Staff Identification Badges, the Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger Tab.

Vessey and Crowe

According to Burns, Vessey was the first enlisted man to become JCS Chair in 1982; he was also the last World War II general to serve as chairman. The following year, 1983, Vessey asked Burns to be his speechwriter. The sense of humor Vessey and Crowe shared -- and that Burns had, apparently -- ended up being what got him the job.

“He asked me if I knew any good jokes, so I told him one, and he said I was hired. I told him I’d never written a speech in my life. He said, ‘Just keep telling jokes,’” Burns said.

Later on, higher-ups selected Burns for command, but Vessey asked him to stay on. Burns did, and is glad he did so, both for continuing to work with Vessey and, later, for Crowe. That’s because, he said, they dealt with “very substantive” issues during their combined eight years as JCS chairmen. Those issues included America’s relationship not only with NATO and the former Soviet Union, but with its own military, he said.

“The U.S. was rediscovering its love of its military,” Burns said. “There were some really tough issues, such as was it lawful to use military might in the nuclear age? We got involved in religious issues, and the underpinnings of the right of a free country to defend itself. It was a complete pivot point of renewing the resolve of (President Harry S) Truman to confront the Soviet Union with the contradiction of its philosophy.”

And there was the question of whether America’s allies would stand up with the U.S.

“It was very interesting to watch these men give advice to the president. These were four-star generals … I learned a lot from them,” Burns said.

With Vessey, he watched as America undertook its first application of military power since Vietnam when, in 1983, the U.S. led the invasion of Grenada, about 100 miles north of the South American country of Venezuela. The entire operation lasted from Oct. 25 to Dec. 15, 1983, and was considered a U.S. victory. The U.S. conducted the operation after a military coup created instability that threatened American interests -- and American medical students at a local facility.

One of the hardest thing Burns said he watched either man do was deliver bad news to their respective presidents. In Vessey’s case, that news was delivered to President Ronald Reagan; in Crowe’s case, Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush.

For Vessey, the worst piece of news came just days before the Grenada invasion: the Oct. 23, 1983, bombing of U.S. Marine and French parachute barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Two hundred and 41 American servicemen died in the suicide attack, the worst military death toll since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.

For Crowe, Burns said the worst news might have been the downing of Iran Air Flight 665. The U.S. shot down the Airbus A300 over the Strait of Hormuz at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. claimed that the crew of the U.S.S. Vincennes  incorrectly identified the civilian aircraft as an F-14 Tomcat fighter, reportedly after the Vincennes signaled warnings on a military channel the Airbus could not receive. All 290 people on board Flight 665 died, including 66 children and 16 crew members.

“I watched two men show a tremendous amount of moral courage when delivering bad news,” Burns said.

But it was how America bounced back from those incidents and triumphed during others that Burns said made the times during which he worked with Vessey and Crowe so critical in his mind. Under his chairmanship, Vessey is, especially, credited with helping push back the threat of the former Soviet Union. This was done, according to most accounts, through the deployment of Pershing II and ground-based cruise missiles to counter Soviet SS-20s. Other accounts credit Vessey for stressing the need to improve war plans -- with JCS members and others personally participating in war games. Outer space, too, was one of Vessey’s areas of influence, helping Reagan to decide on establishing not only the Strategic Defense “Star Wars” Initiative, but establishment of a U.S. Space Command.

Part of what happened under Vessey influenced Crowe’s chairmanship. Thanks to Vessey’s work to reorganize the JCS, Crowe became the first chairman to become the principal advisor to the president, National Security Council and Secretary of Defense.

“In both cases, they sustained the resolve by the U.S. to grow its alliance structure and to modernize and sustain forces that we need -- also, modernizing the organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Burns said. “We resumed our proper place as equal partners in national power. The military was now the umbrella under which other policy could be wielded.”

And in the middle of it all was Julian Burns, writing speeches for both men. There is a painting in his home office that reminds him of that, too. Careful, he says, though: it’s not exactly a literal reminder.

On the wall, above the saddle is a reproduction of Ilya Repin’s The Zaporozhian Cossacks write a letter to the Sultan of Turkey. The original painting is approximately 12 feet long by nearly 7 feet high and is kept at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

The scene is 1648 in the lands around the lower Dnieper River in the Ukraine. A host of Cossacks who have been raiding the Ottoman Empire sit at and surround a rough table, most laughing and jeering. In the center, sitting at the table, is a man wearing a black outfit with white collar, sporting a bowl haircut. He uses a white-feathered quill to write, just the slightest quirk of a smile on his mustached lips.

“The Cossacks had gotten a notice from the Turkish sultan to stop raiding his lands,” Burns said, but the Cossacks could neither read nor write. “So they captured a Hungarian priest to write back a declaration of war.”

The Sultan’s demand to stop raiding his empire was short, diplomatic, flowery by some standards, but stern. The Cossacks on the other hand… their dictation to the priest compared the sultan to Satan, called him a host of unsavory names and ended with them telling him that he could kiss a particular body part that they use to sit on.

It reminds me of my role,” Burns said of his time as a military speechwriter, with a slight smile of his own.

Coming home

As he retired from military life and turned to working with BAE and then Spectrum, Julian Burns also began working on Vessey’s papers. That was nine years ago; he collected speeches, letters, public papers -- and delved into places to get certain papers declassified.

“There’s so much history in those eight years,” he said.

The work on Vessey’s papers turned out to be different than the more recent work on Crowe’s. Vessey was -- and still is -- alive at 91, whereas Crowe passed away in 2007, before Burns even began work on Vessey’s time as JCS Chairman. Furthermore, Burns said, despite their being younger, many of Crowe’s staff members have passed away as well.

But persevere he did, and now has the second volume, on Crowe, to show for his efforts.

Will he take on more writing? Perhaps, he said. Burns also continues working about 500 hours a year, maintaining an office in D.C. For now, though, he’s happy to be back in the hometown he left so long ago.

“Camden and Kershaw County is just a great, special place,” Burns said, waving to a neighbor across the street.

One of his cousins, Jim, used to run the family’s business, Burns Hardware, on Broad Street. Another cousin, Moultrie, practices law at Savage, Royall & Sheheen. His brother, John, is the long-time building official for the city of Camden. His sister, Julianna, also lives in South Carolina.

Burns said he enjoys visiting with all his cousins, nieces, nephews and other relatives.

“It’s nice,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to come back here since I left 50 years ago.”

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