Debt drove sailor's decision to leave

Friday, June 8, 2007
Justin Burns

Crushing debt from the birth of a child and an illness suffered by his wife -- not a desire to avoid military service -- led Seaman Apprentice Justin Burns to leave the Norfolk, Va., naval base and return home to Cape Girardeau, he said Thursday.

In an interview and lengthy e-mail to the Southeast Missourian, Burns laid out the circumstances he said led to his being arrested May 26 on desertion charges. He also said that after he requested a Navy Judge Advocate General lawyer to assist him in understanding the paperwork he was asked to sign on his return, his commanders decided to make him stand trial in a court-martial rather than deal with his case as an administrative matter.

Burns was found at his parents' home after Cape Girardeau police received an anonymous tip. Another sailor, Seaman Recruit Zachari Valentin of Council Bluffs, Iowa, was also arrested for desertion at Burns' home the same day.

In his e-mail and interview, Burns described both the reasons he and his wife, Brittany, found themselves $22,000 in debt, trying to make $2,600 in monthly payments on $2,200 in monthly pay. And he admits he knew what he was doing when he did not return to his ship, the guided-missile frigate USS Carr, on March 14.

"I'm not ashamed to say that I did go UA" -- unauthorized absence -- "from the United States Navy," Burns wrote. "I can honestly say it was a very hard-thought decision to choose the path that I have taken. Whether it was the right decision or not I don't know."

In another section of the letter, Burns said he knows he will be criticized for his actions. "Some people call me gutless and say I was scared and ran from my duty. To them, I say this -- it was not the fear of my duty to my country that I left. It was the fear of my duty to my son and wife. To fail them would be the biggest loss of all."

The consequences of that decision have become clear since he was returned to Norfolk, Va., last week by Navy law enforcement. When he first arrived in Norfolk, he said, the USS Carr was at sea. He was taken to the Transient Personnel Unit, where he waited until the ship returned.

"The ship very grudgingly had to take us," he said of himself and Valentin. "It has gone a lot downhill since then."

During an interview with naval officials about his actions, Burns said he was told he had the right to an attorney. He asked to see a lawyer before signing the paperwork, and that is when the Navy decided to seek a trial, he said.

"The whole thing I would like personally to let anybody know who would ask is that I had no intentions of walking away and not coming back," he said. "Usually what happens when you go UA is a lot of people don't get discharged for it. However many days you are absent are added to your contract."

Chief Petty Officer Tom Kreidel, a spokesman for the Surface Force Atlantic public affairs office, confirmed Wednesday that Burns and Valentin are back on board the USS Carr. There are numerous courses of action open to the Navy in cases like that of Burns and Valentin, but Kreidel said he did not have information about their disposition. "We are real hesitant when it comes to discussing personnel," he said.

Kreidel did not reply Thursday to questions sent by e-mail about the specifics of Burns' statement to the Southeast Missourian.

'I support him'

Burns' mother, Wendy Way of Cape Girardeau, said she hoped people won't judge her son harshly. "He's making a decision that he feels he had to do," she said. "I support him, and I urge other people not to rush to judgment unless they are in the same situation."

The arrest of her son was a shock to Way. Burns hadn't told her he was at home without permission, he said. "I told my parents, I told my friends I was on leave. I didn't want to trouble them with my problems."

Desertion is beginning to be a problem for some branches of the military, but desertions in the Navy are declining, according to media reports. In 2006, 1,296 sailors were declared deserters by their commanders, down by 60 percent since 2001.

But in the U.S. Army, 3,196 soldiers deserted in 2006, according to an April report in the New York Times. That figure has climbed from 2,357 soldiers in 2004.

Valentin was in Cape Girardeau at Burns' invitation, Burns said. He declined to say much about Valentin except that he was "having trouble adjusting to Navy life and nobody wanted to help him out." Valentin was returning from Nebraska, where his parents live, to Norfolk to turn himself in right before the Memorial Day weekend when Burns said he received a call from his shipmate. Burns asked him to come to Cape Girardeau and they would return together. Before they could leave, Burns said, Cape Girardeau police made the arrests.

On maintenance duty

While they wait for their cases to be considered, Burns said, he and Valentin are on duties that require basic ship maintenance and little else.

Burns first reported to Norfolk on Aug. 6. His son, Landon, was born Aug. 30, and his difficulties with the Navy began when he sought housing assistance to bring his wife and son to Virginia.

"They said that because I got married in between boot camp and checking into my first command, they didn't have to authorize the payment of the move," Burns wrote. "Well, I thought that this was strange because I had been under the impression that members of the armed forces were paid certain allowances when they moved. I had never heard of it going any other way. Well, I sucked it up and went ahead and paid the $3,000 it took to move my family out here."

Soon after their arrival, his wife became ill with a kidney infection. She was hospitalized for nearly a week, he said.

Then the bills, which he thought would be covered by his military health insurance, began to arrive. By March, he said, the bills totaled $13,000. With other debt, he owed creditors $22,000 in total. Half his monthly income of $2,200 was going for renting a home off the base because there was nothing available on the base.

"I turned to my command, the only people I had that I could ask for help," he said. "What I asked of them was either what in the Navy is called a Financial Hardship Discharge, or some sort of financial relief. Generally to qualify for a financial hardship discharge you have to have accumulated at least $15,000 in debt.

"Sometimes the command will authorize the payment of certain bills to give them some kind of relief. Well, I proceeded to battle every day to try and get something done. Every time I'd reach a point that I'd think that someone would finally help us the door would close and I'd end up right where I'd started. Everyone seemed more than happy to give free advice, but when it came down to really doing something to help, no one seemed interested in helping."

Told to use shelter

In his final attempt to get help, Burns said he approached the command master chief on his ship. "They only advice he could give me was to take my family to the homeless shelters every night. He said that would at least take care of my food."

The ironic part of the situation, Burns said, is that he joined the Navy knowing his fiancee was pregnant, expecting it to be a way to care for a family.

"Without a college education, I didn't have that much available," he said. "I expected good medical coverage, a steady paycheck and my family to be taken care of. That was the whole reason behind me joining."

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