Master Sgt. Kevin Burrill spent 14 years on active duty in the US Army, as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, before his first combat tour to Afghanistan. He was a soldier’s soldier. His deployments to hostile-fire zones included Macedonia, Bosnia and multiple tours to Iraq. Burrill was a battalion mortar platoon sergeant on assignment with his unit on April 12, 2007, in the Ghazni Province, when the blast from an improvised explosive device upended their mission. Burrill and his team were injured by the impact of shrapnel, dirt, and pressure that pierced the hull of their tactical vehicle. His section mortar sergeant, a close friend whom Burrill had specifically asked to join him that day, was killed in action.
Despite his injuries, Burrill doggedly remained in-country with his unit, until his physical condition deteriorated so pervasively that he was ordered aboard a medivac flight to Germany. The decision was not his. After two years in a Warrior-Transition Unit, with modest gains in mobility from permanent damage to his back and legs, Burrill was medically discharged with an additional diagnosis of traumatic brain injury. Once again, the decision was not his. “There’s nothing that can compare to leading troops in combat,” said Burill. “…but I found myself in a situation where I had to rebuild my life.”
Burrill, however, considered himself lucky. “I had a family business that I could join. Most Veterans were released from duty without any of the resources I had. No one ‘had their back’ once they were discharged,” he said. Six months after Burrill returned home, his father passed away. Burrill worked to build his own business, but he knew something was wrong. “I was having problems readjusting that I couldn’t understand,” he said. Burrill made a key choice, a decision of his own to heal: he sought mental health counseling at the VA.
During the early VA counseling sessions, Burrill’s wife asked for a forum where they could receive couples therapy, which brought them to the Brockton Vet Center. “I felt at home around soldiers,” said Burrill.“The Vet Center was a place where I found my purpose. I knew that I wanted to continue working with Veterans. I wanted something that could satisfy my drive to help others.”
Burrill sold his business and joined the Vet Center program in 2016 as an outreach specialist with the New Bedford Vet Center in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The Vet Center became a place where Burrill could fully thrive while advocating for Veterans, service members, and their families. It helped bridge a gap for Burrill being away from the Army he loved. Burrill’s compassion led to a brainstorming session with New Bedford Vet Center Director David Stone on how best to reach Veterans in need.
“We tend to think of community events, such as parades, as a place to meet Veterans,” explained Burrill. “I wanted to find opportunities to help Veterans that need the most support but have the least resources. That’s when we thought about Veterans in the prison population.”
To advocate for incarcerated Veterans, Burrill asked himself a series of “What if” questions, starting with “What if I hadn’t gone to the VA to get counseling? What if a Veteran was incarcerated because of their individual military experience? What are the effects of untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or sexual trauma that occurred while in the military?” With every question he asked himself, Burrill formed an assertion that incarcerated Veterans deserve to be helped and recognized despite their past.
In March of 2018, Burrill obtained the necessary clearance to begin working with the Veteran inmate population at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
“Kevin is an advocate for the Veterans, but he also understands that the prison system is directed by policies. It’s not an easy position for him to be in, but he handles it with professionalism,” says Joshua Macy, recreation supervisor/volunteer services coordinator at the Old Colony Correctional Center. Macy credits Burrill with providing perspective to inmate Veterans and recommended him for the 2018 Volunteer of the Year award, a singular honor that Burrill was bestowed above hundreds of permanent volunteers.
Macy believes Burrill has improved the culture of the meetings and sees success in the growing interest by other inmate Veterans. “Kevin is a natural leader,” said Macy, who spoke of Burrill’s influence leading a donation drive the inmates held for a local Veterans shelter. The initiative never got past the discussion point until Burrill arrived with persistence and inherent leadership. Throughout a process that required prison permission and functional oversight, the inmates banded together and gave from what they could: a collection of sundries from the prison canteen, which in turn benefitted other Veterans in need. Macy was impressed. Burrill saw it as another example of Veterans helping Veterans.
“If I can help these Veterans now, then years down the road, hopefully they will look upon this time as productive,” says Burrill. “The whole goal is to improve the group. Maybe by reaching out to Veterans who are incarcerated, Vet Centers can give them a glimmer of hope that someone cares. It might make their time behind bars more productive.”
Burrill’s actions reflect the strategic goals of VA’s Readjustment Counseling Service. Burrill begins each outreach process by enrolling every Veteran he meets into the Vet Center system, noting the link of increased connectivity to VA health care services in general with a diminished likelihood of Veteran suicide. He checks if inmate Veterans are eligible for services through the VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program and other applicable VA programs. When appropriate, Burrill helps initiate a service-connected claims process by assisting Veterans with an intent-to-file form that marks the start of a claim with the Veterans Benefits Administration. For in-state Massachusetts Veterans, Burrill checks to ensure Veterans are aware of state-specific Veterans benefits. Burrill has connected at least ten eligible Veterans with Vet Center counseling services upon their release from incarceration, including three with court-mandated counseling requirements. Three Veterans were accepted into VA residential programs directly after their incarceration.
As a result of Burrill’s actions, an incarcerated Veteran might be more likely to seek help and less likely to re-offend simply by Vet Center teams conducting meetings with inmates once a week. Burrill explains it as such: For him, it’s a few hours out of his week; for incarcerated Veterans, it’s their whole week.
Every day at 300 Vet Centers across the nation, team members like Kevin Burrill find their purpose in Veterans helping Veterans. The focus of the Vet Center program is to provide readjustment services and support for Veterans, service members, and their families, no matter their current set of circumstances. Vet Centers offer readjustment support in the form of mental-health counseling, marriage and family therapy, and substance abuse counseling and referral services. The services are provided free of charge and without time limitation. To find a Vet Center near you, click here or call 1-877-WAR-VETS (927-8387) 24/7 to get started.