How one Marine went from attempting suicide to the Ivy League

Matt Saintsing
September 12, 2018 - 5:59 pm

Photo Courtesy of Tom Burke

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In February 2010 the Battle of Marjah was raging in Afghanistan, and to support the massive military operation, each platoon-level combat outpost in the area was required to supply a squad. That left just about 24 Marines at Thomas Burke’s outpost bear Nawa, in southeast Afghanistan. 

But even though they were undermanned and stretched well beyond their limits, Burke’s platoon with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, had to maintain a constant patrol outside of the wire, so as to not let the enemy know their unit was strained. 

With the operational tempo so intense, Burke looked forward to a three-hour window where he could take off his boots and get some shuteye just after 1:00 a.m. one February night. After a Marine shook him awake just one hour later, Burke immediately began crying. 

Leaving behind his body armor and other protective gear, he walked outside the outpost until he reached the Helmand River, where he attached a suppressor to his rifle; he didn’t want anyone to hear the shot. Burke then placed the barrel of his rifle in his mouth, switched the selector off from “safe,” and began to pull the trigger. 

Griffin, a friend of Burke’s, found him beside the river and hugged him tightly as Burke bawled into his chest. 

That was his first of three suicide attempts.
 
Today, he is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and an associate minister of children, youth and families at Norfield Congregational Church in Weston, Connecticut. But Burke’s path from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the Ivy League included being kicked out of the Marines, struggling with drug addiction and post-traumatic stress, and relentless determination as he forged a new path for himself. 

Photo Courtesy of Tom Burke

The Marines were dealing with a “large amount of combat,” in Afghanistan that included unimaginable anxiety-inducing incidents. 

One such occasion occurred just a few days before his first suicide attempt. Some Afghan children were on their way to deliver a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) to Burke when it exploded, killing them instantly. “So we had to go clean up their bodies,” he says. “That was really tough.” 

“Because I spoke Pashto, all of the kids used to hang around and follow me,” he says. The Marines sent him to learn the language before he deployed. 

Burke considered the kids who were killed friends. 

But an incredibly gruesome and traumatic episode doesn’t mean combat stops. “I just kept going, I had to go to work the next day and just tried to do my job,” he adds. “It was really difficult.” 

Burke was flown from Afghanistan back to where he was stationed in Hawaii on May 25th, 2010—his 21st birthday. The Marines were in the process of kicking him out, as he took the blame after rampant marijuana use was discovered in his unit. “Obviously, I was a shit-bag and I take responsibility for everything I did,” he says. “But now that I’m more mature, I know there was just poor leadership in the climate for these conditions to exist.” 

Rather than have other Marines, or perhaps all of them, receive punishments, Burke fell on the sword and he was on his way to becoming a civilian. But before the Marines had a chance to separate Burke, he went “UA,” or unauthorized absence; the Army calls it AWOL. At the end of June 2010, Burke flew from Hawaii to San Diego, where he bought $20,000 worth of cocaine, and spent much of July traveling around the country abusing drugs and dealing with combat in his own way. 

“All I wanted was just to run away,” he says. 

Photo Courtesy of Tom Burke

Burke eventually found himself in his home state of Connecticut at Huntington Park where he attempted suicide a second time. “I cut myself, and some girl I went to kindergarten with found me in the middle of nowhere and brought me to my parents’ house,” he says. He then called his command back in Hawaii and negotiated his return. Burke asked to be placed in the brig, a jail, as he was worried about his own safety. 

After two weeks in the brig in Hawaii, the Marines flew him to substance abuse treatment in San Diego. “They sent me to rehab, which was wonderful,” says Burke. They don’t usually send lower-ranking Marines there, he adds. “So here I was, a little piece of shit at the DOD rehab, and it’s where I started to realize how my narrative could help people."

It was in the fall of 2010 at one of his first meetings at rehab that Burke told his story for the first time. After he was done speaking, the entire room erupted in claptor. That’s because, while others in treatment were more senior service members, most of them never saw combat. “And here I was, in the Marine Corps for just two years and all I knew was combat,” he says.

But while he was confronting some harsh realities for the first time, it proved too much. He attempted suicide a third time cutting himself again with a razor blade and passed out. When he awoke, he was in a psychiatric ward at a naval hospital. 

After just one week, he was released from the hospital but the Marine Corps didn’t want to send him to back to rehab. Instead, they wasted no time kicking him out, giving him an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge. A Marine escorted him to the airport in Hawaii, walked him to the plane, and took away his military I.D. 

Thomas Burke was officially done with the Marine Corps. 

But because of his discharge type, he had no GI Bill benefits, and couldn’t file a claim with the VA. “I had nothing, I couldn’t get unemployment and I was lost,” he says.

Burke eventually found some work at a gym back home in Connecticut, where he also focused on his physical fitness. That’s when he realized if he “just did the work” nothing was out of reach, not even an elite university. 

He also asked for help at the VA, which first turned him away due to his discharge type, but a few weeks later he was found to be eligible for care. Unknown to him, someone at the VA reviewed his military record and made the case to help him. “That was pretty great to hear that someone somewhere said, ‘Nah, I read this kid’s record and we have to take care of him,’” says Burke. “I don’t know who did that, but I’m sure it was somebody in some cubicle in the middle of nowhere.” 

That meant he could receive therapy at a VA facility in Connecticut, and receive some income through a disability rating. It also meant he could apply for vocational rehabilitation and employment services that would pay for college. 

With the pieces of his life slowly being put back together, Burke enrolled at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, with the aim of becoming an English teacher. “I started having a little bit of hope, and then I got to school and I was good at it,” he says. “It was so awesome.” 

Photo Courtesy of Tom Burke

Slowly, he pulled away from his teaching path and looked into becoming a minister. Burke had his eye on one program, in particular, Yale Divinity School. 

He was originally rejected from his dream school. An admissions officer would later tell him they were concerned he would attempt suicide again. But thanks to a professor and other administration officials who strongly advocated on his behalf, Burke was accepted as a non-degree student. For the next year, he earned straight A’s and Yale ultimately accepted him into their masters of divinity program. He graduated this past May. 

Looking back at how he got his life “back on track” he realized it was the subtleties that helped him out the most. There was the sense of community with other veterans, both at Sacred Heart and Yale. Burke had resources through the VA, and a 90 percent disability rating meant he had some money coming in. Burke adds his service dog Rosie, a red nose pit-bull he got his first year in college, also helped him immensely. By gaining Rosie, he knew he had to have a stable life so he could care for her, just as she does for him. 

He now works in a profession he loves, ministry, because of his hard work and perseverance. And even though he didn’t have any GI Bill benefits, vocational rehab paid for all of his education. 

Throughout all of his trials of drug use and abuse, struggles with mental health and multiple suicide attempts, Burke knew his faith grounded him. “It’s very important for me to know and believe in a higher power, and to look to an ethic,” he says. 

That ethic, he adds, means to care for the vulnerable, whoever they may be. “I want to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to care for the alien, both the illegal and refugee,” says Burke. 

“I always want to help those who are suffering.” 

If you’re a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, there are helpful, qualified VA responders standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

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