A Veteran’s Day Profile: DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

The seed was planted with Marc Burgess, national adjutant of the Cold Spring, Kentucky-based national headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), when he was in high school.

“My great-uncle was in the Korean War, Air Force, a pilot,” Burgess said. “I was in high school in Hattiesburg, Miss. – 17, about to turn 18 – and he gave me some good advice that I didn’t take at the time. He urged me to go into Air Force ROTC (in college).  But a few years later, I was attending college and the student loans were adding up.

“I heard his advice ringing in my ears. It was too late for ROTC, but not too late to join the Navy. I had an uncle who was retired from the Navy, so that was the service I chose.”

Burgess served as an original crew member on the USS Normandy, a guided missile cruiser that was being built in the Bath, Me., when he enlisted. The ship was commissioned in Rhode Island, assigned to its duty station in Norfolk, Va., then re-assigned to Staten Island N.Y.  Operations followed in the Caribbean, and then the true purpose for which it was designed.

A few days after Christmas 1990, the Normandy departed homeport to join U.N.  Forces in the operations called Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She was part of the USS America Carrier Battle Group, transiting the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal and Red Sea ultimately to the Gulf of Oman and through the Straits of Hormuz on the way to the Persian Gulf.

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As part of its mission, the Normandy fired 26 Tomahawk missiles and protected allied ships and aircraft in the area. She also helped locate and destroy enemy mines.

“I remember going through the Straits of Hormuz (Iran on one side, Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates/Oman on the other)  and being very aware of the real threat of biological and chemical weapons,” Burgess recalled.  “Everyone had a gas mask they carried with them.  One night, about 2 a.m., I was on guard duty, and the chemical alarm went off; I knew that was no drill.  It later turned out that one of the other ships in the battle group had a malfunction in its sensor, but that period provided some pretty tense moments.”

This coming Saturday, Nov. 11 – Veteran’s Day, the DAV will host its Fifth Annual DAV 5K run/walk/roll/motorcycle at Sawyer Point.  Details are available at dav5K.org/events/Cincinnati. Registration is at 7 a.m. with the race starting at 7 a.m. Other DAV Veterans Day 5Ks will be held the same day in Boston and Atlanta. DAV 5Ks were also held last weekend in Tulsa, San Antonio and Newport News.

“We had over 4,000 here last year, and we hope to increase it this year,” Burgess said. “About half are veterans.”

Promoting the upcoming 5K event is what prompted my sitting down with Burgess to learn a little more about him and the DAV.

It was a bit of a homecoming for me, because my wife’s neighbor when she was growing up in Fort Mitchell, Ky., was a lion-hearted man named Tom Dehne, DAV’s assistant national adjutant from 1984–1989. He passed away four years ago, but it was my great pleasure to get to know him and speak with him on several occasions.

Tom was a Marine veteran who saw combat in the Korean War (two Purple Hearts), and was proud to represent the veterans when he served on the committee to construct the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  I haven’t personally seen that memorial, but my father, a World War II veteran who served in the Persian Corridor, did see it three years ago on an Honor Flight visit and proclaimed it is as his favorite.

I’ve seen the photos, and agree wholeheartedly. Thank you, Pops, for your service, and thank you Mr. Dehne, for yours -- and for your work on that stunning memorial. I wish Mr. Dehne were still around so I could discuss his involvement with the memorial and the present standoff with the North Korean regime. I’m sure he would have provided an interesting perspective from his experience in the Korean War.

I thanked Marc Burgess for his service as well.

Burgess had planned to make a career of the Navy, including going back to college and becoming an officer. But at 26, he suffered trauma to his spine – a bulging disk and herniated disk, and he needed physical therapy to get through it.  Ultimately, he had to discharge from the Navy after five years.

He told me a story about the origins of the DAV in Cincinnati that I had never heard before.

The DAV was created in Cincinnati in 1920, just after the Great War.

“World War I veterans came home to virtually nothing,” Burgess said. “Whatever government benefits there were for injured veterans was agency-based and scattered. Those agencies didn’t communicate, and they weren’t well-funded, if funded at all. It was a real mess.”

“In 1919, a handful of the small veteran groups here in Greater Cincinnati got together here in for a holiday party. The conversation turned to what was a pretty sad situation.  They had invited Judge Robert S. Marx as guest speaker – he was a highly decorated War veteran, and with his direction and leadership that group decided they needed to form a national organization to represent the interest of injured veterans. The following year – Sept. 1920 – they met at Memorial Hall and signed the papers to create the ‘Disabled American Veterans of the World War.’ There were 250 members.  A year later, after the national convention in Detroit, they had 17,000 members.”

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Here’s what I didn’t know until I looked it up in an article titled “Over There, Over Here: Cincinnatians and the Great War” produced by the Cincinnati Museum Center in 1998:

As operations officer of the 357th Infantry Regiment – “The Fighting Cowboys of Oklahoma and Texas” (even though Marx was from Avondale and graduated from Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati) – Marx was on the front lines in France for 75 straight days.

“A day before the Armistice, he went forward to find an infantry company that had lost contact with headquarters. Advancing under heavy fire, he discovered a disorganized and decimated company. Marx reorganized it, and though wounded in the head and chest by an exploding shell, he led the company to the furthest point of the Allied advance. His injuries were so severe that the U.S. War Department advised his mother that he had been killed in action.

“While recovering from his wounds, Marx became concerned about the needs of disabled veterans… Marx responded by galvanizing support among veterans nationwide, and in 1921-22 founded and served as the first commander of the Disabled American Veterans organization.”

At an address July 7, 1922, in San Francisco, Marx said this: “Thirty-two thousand men and women are today – four years after the conclusion of the war – still in various hospitals of the land. One hundred and nine thousand soldiers and sailors were so badly injured that they cannot follow their vocation in life…”

Burgess has been allowed to follow his vocation in life, thanks in large measure to the DAV, to which a WWII vet introduced him 25 years ago.

“I was in Philadelphia to go to school – I didn’t know a soul,” Burgess recalled. “But I’d been advised to go to a vet center in Philly (in 1992) to file a claim for education benefits and for other benefits that might be available to me. This World War II veteran – Irv Meadows who was a volunteer service officer helped me with the basic paperwork, put my mind at ease. He did it the right way, helping a veteran who needed help.”

After earning his degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Burgess went to Denver for national service officer training, then to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Atlanta, back to Washington, D.C., then to Greater Cincinnati about 12 years ago.

Much of the DAV’s work these days is aimed toward ongoing initiatives.

“One of the biggest initiatives we’ve been working with the last several of years… is caregivers,” Burgess said. “There are inequities that exist with caregivers of severely injured veterans. A few years ago, Congress approved caregiver benefits – much needed, much deserved – for veterans and their caregivers.

“If you’re a caregiver of a severely injured veteran, it’s a 24/7; you do not get a break. As you grow in age, being a caregiver doesn’t get easier; it gets harder… Our goal is to right these inequities. It’s not easy, because we’re talking funding.

“Some might say, ‘It’s too expensive.’ But you know what? If you look at how much it would cost the taxpayers to have someone in a facility being taken care of – institutionalized, in other words, -- vs. being taken care of in one’s home with a stipend, respite care, education, training, our studies show that (our way) would save money… We fight the battle every year from a funding perspective. We are committed to caregivers.”

Another DAV initiative that Burgess cited to me is the leveling of the playing field in amount and variety of benefits to women veterans, “inequities that have existed for a long time.”

“There are gaps in services compared to their male counterparts,” Burgess said. “We did a study just a few years ago, which identified nearly 30 recommendations from the DAV to the VA (Veterans Administration) and Congress. We are happy to say that many of those have been taken care of. We are getting ready for another study that will update that report, and we expect it to be out next year. We’ve identified some more gaps. We are way overdue to correct some of these inequities.”

The DAV serves 1.3 million veterans.

The DAV 5K run/walk/roll/motorcycle is an opportunity to support this important organization, and to thank a veteran for their service.