By Tony Hooker
Charolie Burris didn’t know exactly what she was going to do after high school.
She only knew that she probably wouldn’t be sitting in a college classroom, and so she decided to enlist in the Army. Twenty plus years later, she’s still serving our country. I recently caught up with the Master Sergeant to ask about how she came to reach that decision, what her career has been like, and a lot more.
When did you move to Villa Grove?
I moved to Villa Grove in 1991. It was my sophomore year.
You graduated from VGHS?
I did. I actually graduated midterm, so I left in January, 1994.
What led you to the unusual decision to choose a career in the military?
I could have stayed and went to a community college and played basketball or something, but I knew that if I stayed, I probably would not have done well in life, because I was burned out on school. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew that I needed some discipline and structure. I also have a very deep love for my country, and I’ve always had a servant’s heart, so it filled the bill that I could serve my country and also get the routine and discipline that I needed to do well. I figured I would go in and maybe figure out what I was going to do with my life.
What did your family think when you told them?
My mom was all for it. She was all for me going. My dad was Air Force, and I had family members who had served previously. Everyone thought “Yep, it’s probably a good idea for you, because you could go quite wild as a civilian or you can go and get the discipline you need!” <laughs> It was hard, because I was dating someone and it’s hard to walk away from a relationship, but I knew it was something I needed to do.
What career did you choose when you went in?
I chose to be a paralegal, so I worked for JAG.
Did that evolve over time?
It did. I went active duty first, and all my friends said I would be a lifer, but because I’m such a stubborn individual, I had to show them and got out and went reserves. After serving in the reserves, I had taken a job as a military technician, and to do that you have to have dual status. You have to be in the Army and hold a job as a civilian. The rule was that I had to be assigned to the unit I was working at, so I had to reclassify as a chemical NCO. So, I became CBRN, which is chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear. There are multiple types of units. There’s recon units, decon units, search and rescue units. The unit I was assigned to is called bids, and it’s a detection unit. We were constantly going out and pulling samples to see if there was something present. It’s an interesting MOS, it’s cool to go do it, but I hope I never have to do it for real.
What is your rank now?
I am an E8, a master sergeant. In the army as an E8, you can either be a master sergeant, which is an administrative position, or you can be a first sergeant, which is on the command team. I’ve already done my time as a first sergeant, and actually while I was serving as first sergeant in a command in Delaware, I got called up and was personally recruited for a mobilization of the CBRN task force, and that’s where I’ve been for the past three years.
Was that what you thought it was going to be?
No, it wasn’t. The unit I belong to now, the 76th ORC, is a division and we are in charge of all of the chemical units in the army reserve. We have the mission of preparing for America’s worst day. We train constantly to respond in case we get nuked or prepare an emergency response in case we are attacked. We have to think about the logistics and infrastructure of how we will mobilize in case of an attack. We have to figure out how to get there and how to rescue as many people as possible as quickly as we can. While I was mobilized, we mobilized for covid. We built a hospital up in Washington. We are on a 96 hour prepare to deploy order, and we are expected to be on the ground and ready to move out. On this mobilization, we’ve done some really cool things, like going into New York City and working with fire departments and paramedics doing real live events and we get some realistic training. For me, I got recruited to do budget manager stuff. The resource manager got to know me when I was doing separation boards for the JAG and got to know me and my work ethic. Once this mobilization came up, he reached out to me, wanting me on his team. I told him I didn’t know anything about finance, but he said “I need someone who’s not finance. Someone who can talk to other sections and still manage this budget with me”, and so that’s what I did. I went out and watched over the budgets of all of our CREE elements for all of our exercises. When you’re in the Army, you do more than just your job. You learn all kinds of stuff. As a paralegal, I learned all kinds of stuff, and in my civilian job, I’m an army reserve administrator, which in civilian terms is kind of like human resources.
How long have you been in now?
I signed my enlistment contract in October of 1993, so I’ve been in for 29 years now.
How long do you think you’ll keep doing this?
I honestly don’t know, because my plan was to top out and make the Sergeant Major list, but once I do that, it’s a 5-year commitment. I’m up for E9, but with me just moving back and getting settled in, I really need to figure out what I’m going to do, but I can’t draw retirement until I’m 57, so I might as well keep going for a while. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve been in the military for my entire adult life, and I don’t know how to walk away from it, honestly. There are days that I want to walk away, but it’s what I know. I think it’s part of who I am.
It was probably a lot easier to deploy when you were younger, right?
Absolutely, and that’s why I think that everyone should consider joining the military. Unless you truly know what your calling is, and there are a few that do, but if you don’t I think, “what a great way to grow up a little bit. Get your college expenses paid for and experience a little life on the military’s dime.” Thanks to the Army, I’ve experienced so many locations all because of the military. You get out of that small minded perspective. Some people never get a chance to learn what a small part of this world we really are. I am all for experiences that teach you about life.
I’m sure that you have to maintain a high level of fitness due to the rigors of your job, right?
I have to maintain a certain level. They recently changed requirements, and it’s now the Army Combat Fitness test, which is a six-event test that includes deadlift, medicine ball overhead throws, hand release pushups, planks, and the sprint-drag-carry. That’s a killer! You run down and back, then drag a certain amount of weight down and back, then carry kettle bells down and back and then a side shuffle down and back and then sprint down and back again. By the time you’re done there, your legs are like jello, and THEN you go run two miles.
What advice would you give to a young lady who’s kicking around the idea of joining the military?
I’d say go! Like I said, if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, I say do it. Let them pay for your college while you grow up a little bit. Let’s be real. We partied when we went, so you kind of get your college experience while you’re not failing college. The Army’s going to feed you and lodge you and you can get that partying out of your system and figure out what you want to do, whether it’s college or trade school or whatever. I think that everyone should do it. I think that it will help you appreciate things a lot more. There’s not a day that I don’t get in the shower and thank God that I have clean, hot water. Being in Bosnia, watching a family take turns, from father, to mother, to oldest to youngest child, taking turns bathing in a horse trough. I watched that same family walking down the road to their little field with hand made tools that they had to farm with. These folks didn’t have the option to go to a job at McDonald’s that’s beneath them. Seeing that sort of thing firsthand really makes you appreciate what we have in this country.
Is there anything you would like to add?
That three years away, even though I was doing what I love and had my kids with me, it put a real strain on our marriage, and Jason and I today are better and stronger than we’ve ever been. When I came back, I thought “This is it. Jason won’t come back to me, so I have to go back to him,” <smiles> I decided to get as involved in the community as much as I can. I think Cassandra Eversole Gunter has done so many good things with trying to move this town forward. I’m going to be involved in as many things as I can. That’s why I’m coaching volleyball and trying to help out with PTO and I’m running for school board. I told the mayor that as long as I’m here, and things are starting to slow down on the military side, that I want to help in any way that I can.