Retired US Marine Corps Major Richard “Eric” Burkett says he believes God created him to be a Marine. Though he initially began his military service with the Army Reserve, he switched paths to join the US Marine Corps in 1999. Shortly after becoming a Marine, Eric was selected from 220 officers for one of two aviation spots. He was soon competing against others in flight school with significant flying experience–some were even flight instructors with thousands of flight hours. But Eric rose to the challenge and joined the fleet in 2003, where he flew CH-46 Sea Knights, or “Phrogs.”
Several years after becoming a Marine pilot, Eric began flying V-22 Ospreys and found he preferred Ospreys to Phrogs for the “thrills.” Just two weeks into his sixth deployment, on April 11, 2012, Eric was flying an MV-22B on an annual training mission when his plane suddenly took an uncontrolled dive and crashed in Morocco. Eric suffered major lower limb damage in the crash, including several fractures, that eventually led to the amputation of both legs.
After the accident, Eric was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He remembers being on the plane coming back to the States, “strapped to a stretcher, with tubes, drains and monitors and scared as to what the future would hold.” He remembers three things about his arrival to Joint Base Andrews before arriving at the hospital. First, his command sent his best friend and bunkmate to be with him when he arrived home. Having the comfort of someone who knew him and cared for him there meant the world to Eric. The next thing he remembers is an Army General visiting him while he was on the plane and giving him a challenge coin the size of a coaster.
The final thing Eric remembers about his arrival is that he was handed a gift card from Semper Fi & America’s Fund. As he lay in the bed on the plane, unsure of what his future would look like, he remembers wondering why a stranger was already helping him. “It’s just something you never consider–what you need when you return from service. When you have an organization like Semper Fi & America’s Fund that anticipates your needs before you have them and then helps you through the situation, it’s huge,” Eric said.
From that moment on, The Fund became a member of the Burkett family. His case manager, Stephanie, was a constant companion throughout his recovery and rehabilitation. “Even if I didn’t need anything, Stephanie would just stop in my room to check in on me,” he remembers.
Stephanie even set up his first haircut. As a Marine, Eric had become accustomed to meticulous grooming standards. But while in the hospital, his hair grew longer than he preferred. Stephanie brought a barber into his hospital room to cut his hair to help him feel a sense of normalcy.
“Little things, big things, and everything in between–The Fund cares about it all,” Eric said.
Stephanie was not only there for Eric, but she also became a close friend to his wife Melissa. Being a caregiver presents its own unique challenges and stressors. Stephanie understood this and often took Melissa out to dinner or a girls’ night to get her away from the hospital in the early days of Eric’s recovery. “She would come back refreshed and renewed,” Eric remembers. Melissa has also attended The Fund’s Caregiver Retreats to connect with others who share the same daily challenges as a caregiver.
As part of his recovery, Eric took up archery and found it to be therapeutic for him. He quickly became skilled in the sport and has been a member of the United States Archery Team for six years now. He competed in the 2013 Warrior Games and the 2014 Invictus Games, and he is now the coach of the Warrior Games Marine Corps Archery Team.
Eric and Melissa now live in Pennsylvania with their six children. “We can’t agree on any one activity to do together with so many personalities,” Eric laughs, “but we love to be together.” He beams with pride when talking about his children. His oldest son will be following in his father’s footsteps of military service and will become a Navy Seabee this year.
“The Fund is an extension of our family,” Eric said. The Fund has cherished the opportunity to walk alongside Eric and his family over the years.