The timing feels right for Brig. Gen. William R. Burks to leave after 10 years of serving at the helm of the Nevada National Guard.
From seeing action in the Persian Gulf as a weapons system officer during Desert Storm in 1990-1991 to crunching numbers at the Pentagon to being the leader of more than 3,000 men and women who serve both their state and nation, Burks will step down later this summer as Nevada’s 29th adjutant general.
The Reno native, who assumed his final command in June 2009, is completing his 42nd year of service, but for the 64-year-old Burks, though, his memories of time spent in the military — and especially his accomplishments as adjutant general — are as varied as the wild blue yonder in which he flew.
From combat to being a witness to one of the most horrific acts in United States history on Sept. 11, 2001, Burks also took pride in attending deployments or special events to shepherding a new state partnership program with Tonga and later Fiji. One of his most defining moments that occurred almost nine years ago still weighs on Burks after a gunman committed a heinous act at the Carson City International House of Pancakes.
Test of leadership
“Everything up to that point had been smooth,” Burks recalled of his short time as adjutant general. “Then I get a call from the governor’s office … There’s been a shooting.”
Then, Burks said, the next two weeks were what he called surreal.
On Sept. 6, 2011, a 32-year-old shooter targeted people at the popular restaurant on South Carson Street, killing four people — including three members of the Nevada Army National Guard, all in their 30s — and wounding seven others. The gunman then turned his weapon on himself. Although Burks had seen hundreds of military personnel deploy and return home without a casualty, it was an incident of domestic terror that tested the general’s resolve.
“It was taking care of the families as well as the other people who were grieving,” said Burks, remembering the days after the shooting. The guard rallied around their general and each other. No one should have to go through that, but it brought the Nevada Guard together as a family.”
While that may have tested Burks’ leadership, the adjutant general also said many good things have occurred during the past decade and others he may have done differently. He said his philosophy was that of a learning leader, one who changes direction if there’s a mistake. For the men and women deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries in Southwest Asia and Africa, Burks, however, was adamant the soldiers and airmen deploying in harm’s way were fully trained.
“Deployments were always tough. I wanted to make sure they are ready and then eventually rely on your people that they’re telling you the truth (about training),” Burks pointed out. “You (the Nevada Guard) have to sign off on the documents indicating they’re ready.”
For example, he said the U.S. Army has an extensive checklist to certify units meet the standards. If not, the unit travels to an Army installation such a Fort Bliss or Fort Hood in Texas for additional training before deployment.
“It became easier, but it’s difficult to see the people go out the door because we’re always wondering what’s going to happen when they’re over there,” Burks said of the numerous deployments.
Burks, who assumed command during the last year of Gov. Jim Gibbons term, spent more time talking about deployments and the Nevada Guard to Gov. Brian Sandoval, who took his oath of office in January 2011 when more troops were being sent overseas. He said Sandoval took an immense interest in the Nevada Guard and attended every Army Guard deployment and remobilization ceremony. Burks, though, said the Air Guard conducted their deployments differently with smaller groups of personnel or smaller units and deployed about every other year.
The soldiers, however, had a different rotation.
“We had a whole series of deployments with the Army Guard,” Burks said. “We had the ADT (Agriculture Development Team), the Cav unit.”
During 2011 and 2012, Burks and Sandoval bade farewell to several aviation units, a signal battalion, military police and a transportation company which had detachments throughout the state. Sandoval’s first visit to the war zone included the 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, which was assigned to Kandahar.
“He just loved the Nevada National Guard because he was a great commander in chief,” Burks added.
The unit appreciated the support received from the governor. On redeployments to Nevada, Burks said many units would present a shadow box or other memorabilia to Sandoval during a ceremony that also included family and friends. Although Burks was unable to accompany the governor on his three overseas visits, he still managed to travel overseas.
“The time I went was an amazing experience,” Burks said. “We were shelled, but I got shelled during Desert Storm.”
With deployments came another set of problems, especially during the Great Recession where unemployment surged to more than 13 percent. Because many National Guard soldiers and airmen knew they wouldn’t have a civilian job awaiting them after their deployments, Burks said many reupped to remain in the theater.
“As much as you hate to do it, at least it’s putting food on the table for the mom and kids at home or the dad and kids at home,” Burks said. “With the economy so bad, people were begging to go to war.”
Burks, then director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services Caleb Cage and Sen. Dean Heller wheeled into action. Various casinos or groups organized job fairs, real estate businessman and art collector Steve Wynn, a former casino CEO in Las Vegas, gave away thousands of dollars in gift cards to the soldiers and airmen and the local media took an active role in publicizing the job fairs and making the general public aware of the situation.
“The economy was in the tank,” Burks said. “We had men and women at that time living in the tunnels of Las Vegas along with others,” Burks recalled. “They were homeless because the economy was that bad.”
Burks said he’s proud of the diversity and inclusion in the Nevada Guard. Under his command, more females and minorities have been selected for command positions in both the Nevada Army and Air Guard. The adjutant general said it’s no small secret he’s passionate about that.
The Oceania connection
While Burks presided over a number of wartime events, he’s most proud of the state partnership developed with Tonga and most recently Fiji, two island countries in Oceania. Originally, Nevada and Turkmenistan forged a partnership, but CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) decided a change was best for Nevada. Burks said the relationship was “on the rocks” because a memorandum of understanding between the two partners had never been developed.
Fast forward to 2014, and Nevada and Tonga enter into an agreement to help each other and for the Nevada Guard to offer guidance. Tonga is located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and New Zealand. The nation of more than 170 islands is home to more than 106,000 inhabitants whose income is derived from the services, industrial and agriculture sectors.
According to the Nevada National Guard, Pacific Islanders are the fifth-largest demographic in the Silver State and account for about 1 percent of Nevada’s population. Furthermore, the Guard stated, “The State Partnership Program links a unique component of the Department of Defense — a state’s National Guard — with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.”
The State Partnership Program, as of this year, now features 76 partnerships with 83 sovereign countries around the world.
Burks said Tonga can inform the Nevada Guard on matters of military significance after the state shifted its emphasis to the Pacific theater. He added the partnership gave both Nevada and Tonga the opportunity to work together on security issues, humanitarian assistance and domestic response goals. The partners complete about four to six exchanges a year and share information both parties can use.
“Nevada and Tonga share the tyranny of distance,” Burks said after the signing five years ago. “Nevada has a vast amount of land with small patches of water, where Tonga has a vast amount of water with small patches of land. Both make security, infrastructure and the provision of goods and services a monumental task.”
Burks added earthquakes and flooding are also threats to both partners.
In February of this year, Nevada and the Republic of Fiji entered in a state partnership with similar goals derived with Tonga. Fiji is a country in the South Pacific consisting of more than 300 islands and lies about 500 miles west of Tonga.
Burks said Nevada has also participated in the Pacific Angel Exercise that involves humanitarian assistance and the exchange of information and expertise with other nations in the region including Tonga and Fiji.
“There’s also a civilian engineering side to it,” Burks said. “The civil engineers fix schools and other buildings.”
Burks said it’s a win-win for Nevada and its partners.
Prior to becoming Nevada’s adjutant general, Burks had a distinguished career as both a war-time aviator and officer at the Pentagon on a Statutory Title 10 Tour. Burks graduated from Wooster High School, where he was a basketball standout, and then earned an accounting degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1976. He received his commission in 1978 and entered flight training. After receiving his navigator wings, Burks returned to Nevada where he held numerous positions in the Nevada Air Guard.
After 12 years in the Nevada Air Guard, Burks and other airmen found themselves at Bahrain’s Shaikh Isa Air Base in December 1990. Once in country, they flew their RF-4C Phantoms in support of Desert Storm, which began with a massive bombing campaign on Jan. 16, 1991. Burks said the Nevada group, which deployed as a unit, relieved Alabama.
At first the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group flew during the daytime over Iraq and Kuwait, primarily looking for Republican Guard units. Pilots also flew high over Baghdad and the adjacent countryside looking for rocket fuel and chemical weapons plants and both command and communications centers. Military records show the Nevada RF-4Cs took more than 300,000 feet of film that produced more than 19,000 prints of targets.
Burks, a weapons system officer, flew in the backseat of the RF-4C behind pilot Ron Bath. Burks as the weapons system operator was responsible for using the camera on the targets below.
“It was a really surreal environment because you go through years and years and years of training and all of a sudden, you find yourself there — and it’s kind of what the animal kingdom goes through … the fight or flight syndrome,” Burks said.
Nevada’s pilots didn’t take the Iraqis for granted and remained focused on every mission. The RF-4Cs weren’t armed because they were reconnaissance jets. The pilots had to learn escape and evade techniques, and few fighter pilots were willing to fly low — 25 feet over a desert floor — at 650 knots.
One reconnaissance flight took the Nevada airmen near Basra, which was close to the Iranian-Iraqi border. Burks said their mission was to find a convoy that allegedly had Iraqi President Saddam Hussein riding in it. The crews had to plot the targets in the area, figure a way to focus their cameras on a particular location and fly an arc around it. Burks said they kept getting different angles. Even with the reconnaissance flight, Burks said Saddam’s whereabout were still unknown.
“We don’t know if we ever found out if he was in the convoy,” Burks added.
The closest Burks came to being injured, though, occurred on the ground 10 years after Desert Storm. Burks was at the Pentagon working on the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The day was Sept. 11, 2001.
“We were sitting there watching the events on TV and what was going on and New York with the first plane hitting the building (World Trade Towers),” Burks recounted. “Then we watched the second plane hit the building and right after, you heard the whole building shake.”
The third hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon.
“We heard the explosion and then pandemonium broke out in the building,” Burks said.
Some sat in their chairs, stunned, but Burks said everyone, including those in his section, left the building.
Those experiences, Burks said, definitely defined him in his 44-year career from serving in both peacetime and war.
Looking ahead, though, Burks, who was the state’s Veteran of the Month for June 2018, feels the Nevada Guard will be in good shape, and Gov. Steve Sisolak will do a good job as the state’s commander in chief. Burks said each governor brings his own unique style to the position. He would also like to see the Air Guard expand in Southern Nevada.
Now, as retirement beckons, he’s looking forward to refining his golf game and archery and doing more shooting. Burks said his schedule will be less hectic compared to his current 24/7 position. He may even help other military-related organizations such as Honor Flight Nevada and the Nevada Military Support Alliance.
Burks will miss the everyday camaraderie, but he’s ready for the next chapter.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I have been blessed my entire career.”