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Shaped by SWVA: Time in Smyth still helps Air Force colonel

Shaped by SWVA: Time in Smyth still helps Air Force colonel

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The recent Hurricane Ida that hit the Gulf Coast and came up through several eastern states causing extensive flooding along the way reminded a Florida family with ties to Smyth County of the hurricane that destroyed their home in 1992 and sent two young boys to their Atkins grandparents for a brief stay.

One of those boys, Chad Burdick, stationed in Georgia, was recently promoted to colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He recalls that year in Smyth County with fond memories.

“Family, friends, football, faith and farm work” are the core of those memories, Burdick said.

When Hurricane Andrew devastated the southern part of Florida, including Homestead, where Burdick lived with his family, his parents decided to send him and his brother Beau to live with his mother’s parents until the area was restored. Chad’s school was being used as a National Guard base and homeless shelter. Students were being bused to Miami.

“Having an opportunity - even one due to such difficult circumstances - to live with my grandparents at that time in my life was such a tremendous blessing,” Burdick said. “I was always close to my grandparents, Herb and Margie Perkins. We would visit them at least twice a year when school was out, but having an opportunity to live with them and to experience day to day life with them for over a year was priceless, and particularly at that age.”

“Hurricane Andrew hit on my birthday, so I had just turned 17,” he said. “No longer a child, but still not quite an adult, it was the perfect time in my life to enjoy an innocent and yet mature relationship with my mother’s parents. I could better understand and appreciate their life story, the challenges they had, the lifelong sacrifices they made for our family, and how those experiences transformed them into the people I had always known and loved.”

Burdick had a rather well-known great aunt in the area as well, Zollie Fowler, whose community column Currin Valley appeared in the Smyth County News for many years. Burdick made several appearances in the column during his stay in the county.

“Update on our ‘kin’ in Homestead, Fla., after Hurricane Andrew,” Zollie wrote in September 1992. “Our niece and husband, Cal and Katie Perkins-Burdick, both teachers, were back at work Monday, Sept. 14. Their schools, though damaged, were being used for shelters. Their two sons, Chad and Beau, living with grandparents Herb and Margie Perkins, Atkins, are enjoying our Marion school, especially being able to play football. In case relatives and friends are attending the games, Chad wears #42 and Beau #4. They are enjoying the country living, but miss home in Homestead.”

“I love and miss her dearly,” Burdick said of Zollie. “The first time I rode a horse was at her farm when I was a little boy, and I’ve had a lifelong love of horses ever since.”

The stay in Smyth was also an opportunity for him to visit with other relatives, including an aunt, uncle and cousins in Johnson City, Tenn.

“I was always close to my mother’s sister, Dorothy (Perkins) Webb, and that part of our family,” he said, “but to live so close to all of them and see them so regularly remains one of the most treasured moments of my life.”

At Marion Senior High School for his junior year, Burdick made many friends and recalls his teachers and coaches with joy.

“The friends I made at Marion High School were amazing,” he said. “I grew up with WJ and Missy Clark just down the road from our farm, but to have the opportunity to carpool with them every morning to school, to play football with WJ, or to ride the bus home with Missy was equally special.”

“The guys I had lunch with every day are another very fond memory - Josh Hayes, Quentin Fisher, Jimmy Morris, CJ Hutton, Nitesh Patel and Trent Richardson. They invited me to sit at their table on my first day of school and I’ve been forever grateful. We talked about a lot of things, but I especially enjoyed hearing the seniors talk about their plans after graduation. They inspired me and kept me focused on the future.”

“And all my teammates on the football team - WJ Clark, Joel Pugh, Wayne Meadows, Danny Meadows, Brian Blevins, Mark Hoffman, our QB Tim Moxley, and of course my fellow tight end Travis Williams, just to name a few. I spent a lot of agonizing time running up and down Goat Hill with those guys!”

Burdick also represented MSHS at the Governor’s School at UVA in the summer of 1993. 

“The entire staff at Marion Senior High School was amazing,” he said. “They honestly couldn’t have been more welcoming, compassionate or accommodating. Mrs. Annette Scott is my all-time favorite teacher, but Mr. Charles Goodman. Mrs. Nancy Goodman, Coach Newman, Coach Neese, and Coach Wright were all particularly influential as well.”

Burdick got involved in the community as well as school.

“After a long week of school, football practice and work on the farm, it was great to go to Cedar Bluff Baptist Church and fellowship with the youth group and congregation,” he said. “During COVID I was able to catch a broadcast of the service and saw that Mark Hoffman still sings there every once and a while.”

And, ah, those days on the farm bring back delicious and delightful memories.

“There’s nothing better than getting up early to help Papaw feed the cows and coming back to a warm kitchen with Granny’s homemade biscuits fresh out of the oven,” Burdick said. “Then in the afternoons we’d have to mend a fence, tend to the garden or, my favorite, keep those pesky groundhogs from tearing up our land!”

The experience Burdick had of living on his grandparents’ farm and going to school in the mountains of rural Virginia has had a lasting impact on his life.

“The biggest thing is it kept me grounded,” he said. “Our family has roots in the area for as long as we can remember, and our cousin Tina is an incredible genealogist and she has all the documents to prove it. To be able to connect in such a deep and intimate way to my family and its rich Appalachian history, has been a tremendously stabilizing force throughout my life; particularly on the battlefield. Despite all of our rigorous and advanced training, the complexities of urban combat always come down to one of principles and values. And anyone who has been there can tell you that you go to sleep every night asking yourself, ‘Who am I?’ Well, after living with my grandparents for a year on a farm in Southwest Virginia, I know who I am.”

Burdick returned to South Dade High School in Florida for his senior year in high school. Every time there’s a hurricane, it reminds him of that time in his life, when a hurricane temporarily sent him to a school that is home to the Scarlet Hurricanes.

“It happens every year at this time,” he said of the memories. “Especially now with so many people dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and the northeast. What most people don’t realize is just how long-lasting the effects of a hurricane can be. It literally impacts the lives of individuals and communities for a decade or more. I only hope that some people are able to come out of such tragedy with the same deeply rewarding experience as I had nearly three decades ago.”

After his high school graduation, Burdick attended and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has served for 22 years.

“My inspiration for joining the military was the notion of serving something bigger than myself,” he said. “The example of my grandparents and their life story taught me that a life well-lived was one spent in service to others. I knew I would always be happy and fulfilled if I dedicated my life to improving the lives of those around me. And the Good Book teaches that, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).  So making a commitment to lay down my life, if necessary, to secure my countrymen’s God-given freedoms was an obvious choice for me.”  

“Since I made that commitment I’ve served all over the world. I’ve been stationed in Colorado, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arizona, South Carolina, South Korea, Belgium and now Georgia; I’ve been deployed all throughout the Middle East and Europe; and I’ve had multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

On his promotion to colonel, Burdick said, “I’m equally excited and terrified. My study of military history and my own personnel experience has taught me just how impactful and consequential leadership at this level can be on the battlefield. I have enormous confidence in my training, and I’ve been a diligent student of my combat experience, but the ghost of George Custer and his surprise at Little Big Horn still haunt me. My entire military career has largely been consumed by irregular warfare and its many surprises. And trust me, the irony of Marion, Virginia, being named after the father of modern guerrilla and maneuver warfare is not lost on me.”

What has kept Burdick serving in the military are: “The people and the mission.”

“The men and women who serve our country in the armed forces are undoubtedly the most talented, patriotic and hardest working people you will ever meet,” he said. “Every one of them has unquestionable character and commitment to our nation’s core values.”

“As far as the mission - I am of the firm conviction that a strong America leads to a safer, freer and more prosperous world. Our country has fed more people and freed more people than any other nation in history.”

Burdick’s family members are proud of him for his accomplishments and his mother wanted to share his recent promotion with relatives “back home.”

When asked to share any pictures or information about her son from his time in Marion, his mother, Katie (Perkins) Burdick-Anderson, said, “I had a trip down memory lane locating some pictures, particularly since the 29th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew was Aug. 24, which happens to be Chad’s birthday. I remember sitting at the kitchen table the morning after the devastation of our community, celebrating [the birthday] while eating ice cream with my husband and Chad for breakfast. It was melting quickly in the August heat as we had lost power early the previous evening.”

Chad lost his father, Calvin Burdick, in 2016. He was a native of western Pennsylvania and raised in south Florida and met his mother at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. His mother has since remarried her old Marion Senior High School boyfriend, Eddie Anderson, after his first wife also passed away. They now live in Orlando. Chad has an older brother in south Florida, a younger brother in Jacksonville, and two nephews attending college in Gainesville, Fla.

Burdick recently accepted a Headquarters position at Robins AFB, Georgia, where he is currently serving as the Chief of Combat Operations for Air Force Reserve Command.

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