Mike Burkett's father, Army SP4 Curtis Earl Burkett, was killed 45 years ago today, February 19, 1971. As his unit prepared to attack a group of Viet Cong sunbathing on the other side of a river, Curtis Burkett stepped into the water and was caught in a swift undertow. He was found downstream 30 minutes later. Mike was nearly five years old when his father died, and his funeral is Mike’s very first memory.
Mike honored his father in a visit to the site where he was killed in December 2015, part of the 2 Sides Project inaugural trip. It took us four hours to journey 27 miles from Quang Nghi City to get to the edge of the river. Anthony Istrico and Jared Groneman documented what happened that day. Here, Mike and Anthony give their side of the story behind these pictures.
You’ll get the full story about this site visit, and the 2 Sides Project trip, in a documentary from Istrico Productions, coming in 2016.
Mike: I should explain the shirt and the hat. I was going to wear something nicer, dressier. I thought about how my dad liked music. I’m not sure if he loved the Rolling Stones, but I was willing to believe he did. And I put on a Texas A&M hat because, like I say all the time, I’m just a dumb ‘ole Aggie. I just wanted to go as who I am.
Anthony: Mike was in the moment, really absorbing it. But then he did something that made me realize he wasn’t just thinking about himself. He asked us to pause and think about a friend we knew who has brain cancer and wasn’t doing well. That really touched me. When he should have been selfish, he was thinking of others, someone who was in need. That summed up Mike for me. It was never only about him.
Anthony: I knew the story of that day, how Mike’s father and his group had spotted Viet Cong on the other side of the river. That scene was in my head as I looked across and saw people on the other side. At first there were two, then three, then a small group gathered. It’s what Mike’s dad would have seen with his own eyes.
Mike: I can honestly say I’ve never been to a more peaceful place. You could go get your fishing pole or bring a picnic and sit on the side of the river all day. It was just an absolute place of peace. It wasn’t that way on February 19, 1971. Then, it was an absolute disaster.
Anthony: Driving to Mike’s site, I saw the Vietnam I knew from movies: the rice paddies, the terraced fields, the many shades of green. But Vietnam changes so quickly, anything can happen. One minute it looked fine, and the next it looked like the sky was going to open up and we’d get soaked. It thought a lot about how we have no control over anything. That was true for Mike’s dad. He was looking at this calm river, thinking “I’ve got this,” and then he stepped in, and in an instant, he was gone.
Anthony: Everyone had gone back to the bus, and Mike and I were the only ones left. Mike was looking upriver in the direction where his dad fell in. When he turned back to me, his gaze had changed. I saw life in his eyes. It was like a whole new Mike.
Mike: This trip provided me closure I didn’t know I needed. We’re all adults now, and our dads have been gone a long time. We’ve had to deal with death through the years. I thought I’d dealt with it, and I had. But seeing the actual place where it ended for him, that changed me. This year, the anniversary of his death will be totally different. I’ll still miss him, and I’ll think about him, but there is a peace I found from being at that spot.