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Veterans, Active Duty, and Military Families


Families on the Front Lines: The Burgesses

Carrying on a legacy of military service

These six women are descendants of  the late Leon Burgess, a World War II veteran who spent 30 years in the military

Gregg Segal

Members of the Burgess family at a December gathering. From left: Laura B. Stevens Callahan, Bethany Gillin, Susan Harrington, Sara Johnson, Cindy Carlson and Melody Bock.

The Burgess Family
(Air Force, Army, Navy)

These six women are descendants of the late Leon Burgess, a World War II veteran who spent 30 years in the military, mostly in the Air Force, and his wife, Helen Sue. They had four daughters (three of whom served) and two sons (one served). Laura B. Stevens Callahan, 67, of Hernando, Mississippi, spent seven years as an attorney in the Air Force and 23 years in the reserve and Air National Guard. Her sister Lucinda “Cindy” Carlson, 66, of Midway, Kentucky, served for seven years on active duty as a nurse in the Army and 21 years as a nurse practitioner in the reserve. Their sister Melody Bock, 59, of Newark, Delaware, spent seven years on active duty, mostly as a public affairs officer in the Navy, and 13 years in the reserve. 

Laura’s daughter Sara Johnson, 31, currently of Clovis, New Mexico, is a captain in the Air Force, serving as an intelligence officer. Cindy’s daughters are Susan Harrington, 32, of Pensacola, Florida, who served in public affairs in the Air Force for eight years and is now in the reserve, and Bethany Gillin, 29, of Nashville, Tennessee, who spent seven years as a nuclear surface warfare officer in the Navy, finishing last August. The interview took place in Breckenridge, Colorado.      

Why they served

Laura: Our dad never said to us, “Why don’t you go into the military?” He didn’t discourage us, but he was probably as surprised as anybody that three of his four daughters went in, and all in different branches.

Leon Burgess, with, from left, daughters Cindy, Laura and Melody in 1996. Burgess served in the Air Force; his daughters, in the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively.

Photo courtesy Laura B. Stevens Callahan

Leon Burgess, with, from left, daughters Cindy, Laura and Melody in 1996. Burgess served in the Air Force; his daughters served in the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively.

Cindy: Being raised military, you don’t have a ton of money. All of us went to college, but I was first, and accepted an Army scholarship — a wonderful way to get college paid for. 

Melody: I was in high school during the last years of the Vietnam War. And it irritated me that my little brothers could have been drafted if the war continued but that I was excluded, just because I was a woman. I thought, That just isn’t right. I have a choice. And I’m going in.

Laura: The day I put that Air Force uniform on, I was, like, this is where I belong. When I finished my law degree and joined the office of the Judge Advocate General in 1981, there were about 1,500 lawyers, and only about 130 were women. Today there are a lot more women in the JAG Corps.  

Cindy: Our generation joined the military in peacetime. Our daughters have had it harder. They’ve had pretty difficult and painful experiences and a lot more deployments. Things that we really didn’t have to deal with. 

Bethany: We grew up feeling we needed to serve and that we ought to give back to the country that has given so much to us. I went to the Naval Academy in 2007, and I knew it was where I was supposed to be. Would I encourage my daughter to do what I did? I will make sure she knows exactly what she’s getting into, because it’s not easy. 

Susan: Leaving for deployments was the hardest part. But I look back at both my deployments in Afghanistan and I loved the people that I met, and I loved the work that I did. You’re part of something that’s really making an impact.

Sara: I’m coming up on my third deployment, and my husband has had four — so, eight years and seven deployments between us, four to six months every time. It’s tough, but I keep volunteering for them, because for me and for my job as an intelligence officer, deploying is where it all culminates. It’s what makes the biggest difference. I’ve had the chance to actually save people’s lives. 

How they stay tight

Melody: We grew up moving around. It makes you more flexible. You can go anywhere and be comfortable, fit in.

Laura: Having phones has been really helpful. When Susan and Sara were deployed over in Afghanistan, we could just call. But we also make a real effort, as a family, to stay close. It’s always been that way.

Sara: You drive halfway across the country if you have to. You just do everything you can.