Single father of three: Chelsea, 16; Adam, 13, and Erica, 12. Burnette has a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, four Meritorious Service Medals, eight Army Commendation Medals and five Army Achievement Medals.
FORT STEWART, Ga. - The soldiers who work with Master Sgt. Richard Burnette say he's one of the toughest guys they've ever known. And he's the kind of leader they aspire to be.
"My first impression was, 'Oh my God, I hope he's not here that long,'" said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Thomas, recalling when both soldiers arrived at 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division Brigade Troops Battalion two years ago. But those first impressions faded fast.
Thomas shakes his head now and remembers the dreadful day last year when he was sitting in the battalion's tactical operations center in Baghdad. It was May 1 and the unit had just suffered its first major attack with casualties. One of those was Burnette. "I was on the radio. We just sat there in surprise in the TOC waiting to hear," Thomas said.
He remembers thinking: "Who was going to pull us together now that he's gone?" Burnette, now 43, survived but had been severely wounded, his thumbs blown off by a suicide driver who exploded his cargo 10 feet away as Burnette stood outside his Humvee with a group of four children.
All of the children were killed, and Burnette was knocked down, sprayed with shrapnel, suffering severe wounds in his left arm.
He spent several painful months in recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he became an "older brother" figure to other wounded soldiers who needed help and guidance during their stays at the hospital.
Burnette wanted to return to Baghdad but never could. It was his first combat deployment, one he could have easily forgone by retiring after a stint as a first sergeant in basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"I knew I was going to Iraq, and there was no way I could walk away just to get out of the battlefield. My conscience wouldn't let me do that," said Burnette, a single father of three since a 1996 divorce.
He lives today with a chronic ringing in his left ear and throbbing pain in his hands. When he walks, he said, "it feels there's rocks in my boots. Barefoot, it's almost unbearable."
Occasionally, his soldiers say, Burnette slips back into drill sergeant mode. He's known for never asking anything of a soldier he wouldn't ask of himself.
"What stood out in Iraq was, as a master sergeant, you don't have to do [physical training], but he was out there with us every day," Spc. Toulia Yang recalled. Burnette earned the respect of his senior leaders, especially battalion commander Lt. Col. Jamie Gayton, who made him battalion operations officer, a demanding slot usually filled by a field-grade officer.
Gayton knew Burnette had the skills required to run the S-3 shop. Plus, he needed all of his junior and field-grade officers for the brigade's monumental reconstruction mission in eastern Baghdad.
"At the Joint Readiness Training Center, it became obvious he was the one," said Gayton, who nominated Burnette for Army Times Soldier of the Year.
Burnette worked 18-hour days while watching out for the well-being of his soldiers. "When you task out two, three, four things and have to move on to other things, he's the guy who would come back and brief me at 1800, 2000 or 2100," Gayton said.
Burnette acknowledges he's no softie - except with his kids - and he said he would never show his soldiers his sentimental side. But he is quite sentimental about soldiers. "The biggest thing to me is they [serve] voluntarily, even though they could be [sent to] the battlefield again," Burnette said. "Even if they stay or get out, I have to respect them because I was there at one point. I was that private."