John A. Burek, 50
Branch: Army National Guard
War zone: Afghanistan
Years of service: active duty, 2008; Guard duty, 1981–2010
Rank: master sergeant
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Medic Badge, Afghanistan Campaign Ribbon, World Trade Center Ribbon with WTC device
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
A decision to join the Army National Guard with his parents’ permission at age 17 provided John A. Burek with a noble plan for life – becoming a saver of lives.
However, war would test his devotion to that vocation when he came face to face with a wounded enemy.
After graduating from Attica High School, Burek had a gem of an idea: He wanted to pursue some type of medical career. The Guard, he figured, could help him succeed in that ambition.
“The training I received as a medic taught me how to save lives and it really wasn’t that long before I became an instructor training other soldiers to become medics,” he said.
Burek was off and running.
In civilian life, he attended Steuben-Allegany BOCES and earned a certificate as a licensed practical nurse for which the military rewarded him with a promotion to sergeant.
He continued his outside education at Excelsior College in Albany, where he graduated as a registered nurse.
The military wanted to further advance him as an officer.
“I didn’t want to do that. I remained enlisted so I could continue to train other soldiers and avoid being stationed in a command center somewhere.”
By 1993, Burek was working in civilian life as an emergency room nurse at Erie County Medical Center, honing his skills assisting doctors in treating those wounded by gunfire and countless other types of injuries and maladies.
Little did he realize he was readying himself for the War on Terror.
His first stop was New York City and the destroyed World Trade Center towers in September 2001. He supervised a first aid station to serve police, firefighters and civilian contractors. After serving in Lower Manhattan, he spent the next several years training medics and other soldiers who doubled as “combat life savers,” all of them bound for the Iraq War.
In March 2008, it was his turn to head overseas.
Burek was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 27th Brigade.
“I worked as a medic at different locations throughout Afghanistan. I would be in one place for two to three weeks and then be reassigned. I filled in for medics who’d gone home or were on leave.”
His busiest work occurred while embedded with a unit training Afghan soldiers.
“I treated gunshot wounds to the abdomen, the chest, arms and legs.”
He wanted to do more, but on the battlefield there were limitations and he could only administer the most rudimentary of medical procedures.
“It was like I have all this training but I didn’t have a whole emergency room team. All I could do was lifesaving measures until we flew them out in helicopters.”
And yet with all his training, he was not entirely prepared for what he encountered in his very first battlefield patient – an ethical dilemma of perhaps the most trying kind.
A Taliban soldier had been placed in a “dead cart,” which amounted to an old farm wagon Afghan civilians were using to gather up the deceased following a battle.
“He pretended he was dead because he didn’t know who was picking him up. I was nearby and the civilians said, ‘Hey, doc, this one’s alive.’ ”
Burek ran over and pulled the young man out of the cart and onto the ground where he bandaged him to stop the bleeding before attaching two IVs to replenish his fluids.
As Burek performed first aid, he could not block out what an Afghan soldier had just told him – that the man he was saving was a member of the Taliban.
“The Afghan soldier said he was a really bad one. He was the one who gave orders to execute civilians. My conflict was, ‘Here I’m saving the enemy,’ but I also thought, ‘I’m saving a life.’ ”
At the same time, the wounded man’s eyes betrayed him – forcing Burek to warn him in English.
“I knew he wanted to kill me. I could see it in his eyes as I worked on him. He kept looking at my weapons, my M16 rifle and 9 mm pistol. I told him, ‘Don’t you touch them. I’m trying to save your life.’ He just kept looking at me.”
And while he patched him up, other Afghan soldiers chimed in urging Burek to end the man’s life. “They kept saying, ‘You should just kill him.’ ”
Even now, six years later, Burek says he relives his actions of that day and comes to the same conclusion, that it was right to save the man’s life.
“I’m glad I made that decision to save his life. I’m trained to save lives, not take lives.”
And though now retired from nursing, Burek continues to save lives as a volunteer emergency medical technician with the Attica Fire Department.