CHARLESTON -- When Lester Burton took a “sabbatical” from teaching, he wound up in a war zone on the other side of the world.
Burton, originally from Neoga and now living in Charleston, had just finished his first two years of teaching elementary school students in Findlay in the spring of 1966 and had signed a contract to teach sixth grade at Franklin School in Mattoon that fall. Because he was a teacher, he was exempt from the draft but he decided to break his teaching contract and volunteered to be drafted for service in the U.S. Army.
“It was just a time of unrest in my life,” Burton recalled. “I wanted an adventure, wanted to try something different and serve my country.”
After training at Fort Hood, Texas, his unit left by ship for Vietnam in August 1967.
He served as troop clerk in the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry, attached to the 4th Infantry Division, in the central highlands near Pleiku.
“I was proud to serve my country and never regretted my decision to delay my career to help our country during this turbulent time,” he said. “I was like ‘Radar’ in the TV show M*A*S*H.”
He was a personnel specialist. He was stationed at Pleiku, located in the center of Vietnam. Pleiku is at the crossroads of several major roads leading north and west.
“I was responsible for helping the adjutant and commander do paperwork. There was a lot of paperwork. We worked from sunup to sundown,” he said.
One major task was helping compile the “morning report.” That report tracked every soldier stationed there on a daily basis -- if he was in class, on leave, in the field, wherever. That report was sent to the Pentagon each day.
“This was before computers,” Burton explained. “I always said I was sent to Vietnam with a typewriter on my back, but we carried weapons, too.”
He performed so well as a personnel specialist that he was awarded a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. His adjutant sent a letter to Burton’s parents in Neoga, praising him for his performance.
“I always try to do the best I can. I was 23 years old when I volunteered. I had finished college and taught two years,” he said. “I was more mature than some soldiers at that time.”
Of course, there were no cellphones or computers available to soldiers of the Vietnam era.
“Nothing was more welcome than a letter from home,” Burton said. “There was one unit that didn’t seem to receive any letters. So I asked a (college) friend if she and some of her friends would write letters and those letters went to the men in that unit.”
Because of its strategic location, Pleiku often was attacked by the North Vietnamese.
He was there during the Tet offensive in January 1968. Everyone grabbed their weapons and donned bulletproof vests, Burton said.
“When (North Vietnamese soldiers) attacked, the alarm would sound and we would run to safety with mortars firing at us,” he said.
Burton said he always believed he would come home.
“It was a very dangerous situation and I was doing my duty to my country,” he said. “It was nothing that anyone else couldn’t have done. Of course I was lonely for the U.S., but I knew I would return one day. Even when I rode in helicopters to other areas, it never once occurred to me that I might be shot.”
While in Vietnam, and nearing the end of his tour of duty, he received a letter from Eva Honn, principal at Franklin School in Mattoon, informing him of an opening, and offering him the job, for the same teaching position he had given up two years earlier.
“Since I was anxious to continue my teaching career, I eagerly signed the contract in Vietnam and dropped it in the mail. Just two weeks after being discharged from the military in August, I was teaching sixth-graders at Franklin Elementary School in Mattoon.
“What a contrast, going from the combat zone in Vietnam into the lives of young children two weeks later,” he said.
Burton continued teaching children of various ages, retiring three years ago from a career that spanned 46 years. Today, he still serves as a substitute teacher at Hawthorne School/Armstrong Center in Mattoon.
“I try to teach patriotism to my students,” he said. “I try to show by example. I always talk positive about my country.”
Burton said he attended the dedication of the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Springfield years ago and visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall when it was in Charleston this summer. It includes the names of the 58,000-plus who died during the Vietnam War.
“When you are a Vietnam veteran, you are a Vietnam brother,” Burton said. “There’s a saying that ‘All gave some, some gave all.’
“I gave some,” he said. “The ones whose names are on that wall gave all. The real heroes are those whose names are on the wall.”