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Vietnam vet found 'peace and love' despite missing Woodstock

When thousands of other young people were making their way to Woodstock, the music festival that would come to represent the peace and free love themes of the 1960s, 19-year-old Jerry Burger was on his way to Army basic training.

The Buffalo teenager was drafted and had no choice – unless, of course, he fled to Canada.

"That would have been a pretty extreme choice that would have changed my life completely, disengaging me from my community," the 67-year-old Burger said of why he chose to leave for Fort Dix, N.J., on Aug. 15, 1969, when Woodstock was getting underway.

"I remember reading stories about Woodstock in the Philadelphia newspapers and it was pretty chaotic," Burger said.

As it turns out, he ended up attending something far more chaotic – war.

"I arrived in Vietnam on Jan. 9, 1970, and the chaos of Woodstock paled in comparison to Vietnam."

For 11 months, he and other members of Bravo Company’s 3rd platoon, 1/501/101st Airborne Division, were helicoptered into mountainous combat zones with orders to search and engage the enemy in firefights.

But it is one particular chain of events Burger wants to recall. He and his buddy George Underdown from Medina were driven by thirst to search for water.

Their unofficial mission on Friday, March 13, 1970, took them down a hill to a bone-dry riverbed where they hiked until Underdown slipped on a rock and lost control of his M-16 rifle. The weapon flew through the air and struck Burger in the head.

"I was bleeding profusely, and George was so nervous I had to give him a cigarette to calm him down," Burger said. "We made it back to the rest our platoon and I was MedEvaced and received 13 stitches in the back of my head."

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Jerry Burger, 67

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: City of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: August 1969 – August 1971

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Army Air Medal with bronze oak leaf cluster; Army Commendation Medal

Specialty: infantry

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At his home base, Camp Sally, he began what he thought would be a brief recuperation only to discover there were medical complications.

"I woke up the first morning and my head was swollen. I had to stay at the camp awhile so that they could keep the wound clean while I was fighting the infection," he said. "Anytime my colleagues returned to the rear for rest and relaxation, they told me ‘George is really concerned about you.’ I’d tell them to tell George, ‘Don’t worry, I’m living the life of Riley back here.’ "

On April 1, Burger was cleared to return to duty up in the mountains.

"I was on the helicopter pad and heard over the radio that George had his head blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade that morning. I never got the chance to speak with George again. I had been looking forward to seeing George and laughing about what had happened to me and asking him to drop another rifle on me."

That same attack that killed Underdown also severely wounded two other soldiers, one from Williamsville, Burger added.

"They were both sent back home to what we called, ‘the world.’ "

As for the loss of his friend, Burger said that what happened was a strange twist of fate.

"I suffered a minor inconvenience that worried George so much, and he and his family suffered the ultimate."

Burger experienced other tragedies and losses before leaving Vietnam on Nov. 29, 1970, but he says the story of his buddy stands out.

Jerry Burger, in a photo taken at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, points to the name of buddy George Underdown, who was killed while Burger was recuperating from a head wound accidentally inflicted by his friend.

After completing his two-year hitch at Fort Hood, Texas, Burger took the government up on the GI Bill and attended SUNY Buffalo State, earning a degree in special education.

Yet he decided teaching was not for him and found work at Watson-Bowman Acme, a local manufacturer of bridge and highway expansion joints. The years passed, and he made a decision to put the war out of his mind. At one point, he even shredded his more than 100 photos from his time in Vietnam, though he held on to the negatives.

"When I left Vietnam, there were some guys that wanted to stay in touch, but I didn’t want that to be the centerpiece of my life, from when I was 20 years old."

But after retiring last June and unexpectedly reconnecting with four of his fellow soldiers through social media, he’s dug up the photo negatives and had them printed. Some of the images, he said, have been put to music for viewing on YouTube.

"One of the guys I’m in contact with is from New Orleans, and he lost all of his war photos in Hurricane Katrina and I have photos of him. He’s had a stroke and it is hard for him to explain his war service," Burger said. "So it’s really rewarding for me to help him out by sharing these photos with his family."

As for Woodstock, Burger says he does not regret missing out on it.

"I have found my own peace and love. The combat soldiers I served with are my brothers."

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