In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.
Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests. “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”
Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”
Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”
In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.
There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”
Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”
While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.
“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”
At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.