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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, February 08, 2009

John Burson waited a lifetime to go to war, and when he did, he returned to Georgia with a whopper of a story.

Four years ago, at 70, Burson — an ear, nose and throat specialist from Carrollton and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel — volunteered for a three-month combat tour in Iraq.

Family photo

Lt. Col. John Burson, shown on his way to Baghdad in 2007, will board a plane this week for Afghanistan.Recent headlines:

Burson, now 74 and on his way Saturday for a third combat tour, said he was aware of Saddam’s ruthless ways but, under the circumstances that the two men met, the dictator was an affable guy.

“He was very interesting, sort of like Bill Clinton,” Burson said in an interview.

Charismatic and savvy, Burson described him.

“He really loved the Americans,” he said. “He knew they were his best hope for survival. He was sanguine. He could be phony about things when he needed to be.”

Burson spent 12 hours a day watching Saddam. It was a fitting assignment for the Georgia man who longed for adventure.

Burson grew up in a modest home in Carrollton. He knew engineering would be big after the Russians put up Sputnik, so he earned a Ph.D in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech. But when he was 37, he entered medical school at Emory University to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

Before all that, he became a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve but never got called up. He missed Korea and Vietnam and finally hung up his uniform in 1985, thinking he would never see a battlefield.

With the Iraq war raging in 2005 and the Army in need of medical personnel, Burson heeded an inner calling.

“I’m a kid from the Deep South. I lived through tough times and made it,” he said. “I lived the American dream. Other people made the sacrifices.”

Lt. Col. George Wright, a Pentagon spokesmman, said Burson is one of the oldest to volunteer, but the Georgia doctor met the requirements, including the Army’s physical fitness test.

He will go through a mini boot camp at Fort Benning before boarding a plane for Afghanistan. It will be his third overseas deployment — Burson did a second stint in Iraq in 2007.

The doctor acknowledged the deployment to Afghanistan would be particularly challenging because he asked to be assigned to an infantry unit in the storied 101st Airborne Division.

“When you’re 70, where are you going to find that kind of excitement?”

Burson first met Saddam in December 2005, a week into a hunger strike started by the dictator. He recalled that Saddam threatened to continue not eating until he saw Burson take out a feeding tube to be inserted into his throat.

“He decided he didn’t need it,” said Burson, one of several U.S. military doctors who examined Saddam and spent 12 hours a day with him for two weeks.

Burson read his medical books and tried to make the time go by. Sometimes, the two men talked.

The Iraqi dictator spoke English well enough but wrote love poems in his native Arabic for some of the British nurses.

“Under those circumstances, he was likable,” Burson said.

Burson spent most of his time in 2005 at Ibn Sina, the combat hospital in the Green Zone. He went back one time to visit Saddam during his trial for crimes against humanity.

Saddam recognized the septuagenarian. The dictator, soon to be sentenced to death, told the doctor: “I’m glad they sent me a guy with gray hair this time.”


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