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Burr chronicles life stories about veterans 

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Christina Burr enjoys meeting people.

In fact, the more she knows about a person, the happier she is not only for herself but also for an individual’s family. 

With March being Women’s History Month, Burr chronicles life — by writing military history from transcripts provided by the men and women who served their country as a member of the armed forces.

As editor of My Life My Story, a program administered by the Veterans Affairs (VA) Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, Burr and her volunteer staff of four transcribe hours of audio tape recorded by veterans who tell their life stories. The finished product slips into the veterans’ medical files with the VA, and then she presents copies to the veterans and their families.

Burr loves to talk to veterans about her program, and recently she told members of the Sierra Nevada Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America about My Life My Story and encouraged them to do their stories.

Burr, who grew up in Reno and attended Reno High School, first heard of many veterans’ stories after enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps where she learned how to drive the big rigs but later chauffeured three different generals. Before returning to Reno, she earned a degree from the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Once back in the Truckee Meadows, she worked for the Washoe County School District as a substitute and intervention teacher before the VA hired her for its Community Living Center. Burr said one day she heard about a special program when she saw the former My Life My Story’s director talking to veterans.

“I asked him why he’s talking to my veterans, and he said that’s what he does,” Burr recalled.

Like those who now volunteer for Burr, she asked Kim LaBrie, a retired Nevada Army National Guard colonel and aviator, if she could be a volunteer. For two years, she listened to the veterans’ stories on her own time outside of her regular employment and became hooked talking to the men and who served before her. Burr then faced the opportunity of a lifetime. LaBrie retired from the VA, and she applied for his position and was selected.

The My Life My Story program began nationally in 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin, and branched out to other VA healthcare facilities. The Reno facility was one of 40 that adopted the program, but the coordinator in Reno is not a volunteer. 

That was even sweeter for Burr … to be paid for a job she loves.

“We are very fortunate in our VA to have a paid position,” Burr said. “This is my job, the best job in the entire world.”

Burr interviews veterans, who are enrolled with VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, and asks them questions about their lives. The interview lasts about an hour to 90 minutes, sometimes more. Over the years, Burr has developed an approach that eases the veterans into their sessions. She asks the basic questions about their birthplace, schooling, interests, family life, military and civilian professions, organizations and whatever else comes to mind.

“Anything they may want to talk about,” Burr said, adding she prefers the veterans to speak in a first-person voice.

While many of the interviews are conducted in her office, Burr occasionally will meet veterans at their homes. Once the veterans finish their recording, the volunteers help transcribe the audio, and then the finished project is placed in the veterans’ medical files to assist anyone in the VA health system to know a little more about their patients.

The “Through Our Eyes: The Women Veterans Experience" photo exhibit is on display at Naval Air Station Fallon. Image: Steve Ranson / LVN.
The “Through Our Eyes: The Women Veterans Experience” photo exhibit is on display at Naval Air Station Fallon. Image: Steve Ranson / LVN.

Once the transcript is proofread and corrected, Burr then contacts the veteran for a few photos to accompany the file. She wants any photos — military careers, family, school or life in general.

“You get the history from somebody actually participating in the event,” she pointed out.

The response has been gratifying for both the families and Burr. She said people whose family members died before the beginning of My Life My Story expressed some sorrow that their loved one had died. Others whose veteran parent or grandparent is still alive wonder how Burr extracted safely guarded secrets.

“How did you get dad to talk about it,” said Burr, repeating questions from the veterans’ family. “We couldn’t get dad to talk about it.”

Burr, who has volunteered as a guardian on an Honor Flight Nevada trip in November 2022, knows the importance of those stories, especially with My Life My Story.

“It’s a wonderful little keepsake,” she added.

The program keeps growing with more and more stories and projects.

The program took a giant leap in 2017 from a Reno Artown display. A women’s exhibit of military women evolved from Artown, and a committee brainstormed on what an exhibit would feature.

 “Through Our Eyes: The Women Veterans Experience” involved women from 100 years old to 25, all five services. We did their stories, added photos and followed with what they have done,” Burr explained.

“The I Am Not Invisible” is a separate campaign at the VA that began with a ribbon cutting at the  Ioannis A. Lougaris VA Medical Center in March 2021. Burr said the 39-photograph display honored women veterans who work in every department for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. One of the photographers for the VA secretary in Washington, D.C., visited the Reno facility in December 2020 and took photos of the veterans for the exhibit. 

In 2022, the VA officially unveiled Burr’s “Through Our Eyes: The Women Veterans’ Experience” exhibit near primary care. One of the first notable veterans who saw the exhibit was former Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander-in-Chief Matthew “Fritz” Mihelcic. Burr said “Through Our Eyes” aims to increase awareness and dialogue about women veterans, as well as open the viewers’ eyes to the contributions and experiences of women who have served our nation.

The exhibit features women representing various backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and all five branches of military service. It has been on display at Naval Air Station and South Valleys Library, and the exhibit will be on display at the Nevada Army National Guard’s Washoe County Armory at Stead.

With several hundred stories finished and many more in the process of being formatted for the files, Burr is like any writer. She has favorite articles, and they involve two nurses from World War II, 103-year-old Doris Howard and the late Jean Fernandez.

Fernandez was born in in November 1919, and her mother’s side came from Ireland, and her father Phillip worked as a spring or shocks absorber fitter for automobiles in Michigan. She eventually graduated from nursing school and entered the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. In July 1944, Fernandes left for her basic training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.

“I graduated from nursing school and went in the Army as a second lieutenant. I went to Camp McCoy, in Wisconsin, for basic in July 1944.

“After basic, I had orders to France, 179th US Army General Hospital in northern France.

“We sailed over to Liverpool, England. It took us a week. You know our quarters were right underneath the big guns. When they shot them off, oh my God, I tell ya, they were so loud.

“We got to Liverpool and then, we took a train to South Hampton. From there, we got on a smaller boat, just our hospital unit. There were about one hundred of us to cross the English Channel to France.    

“It took us three days to go thirty-two miles because the German submarines were in the channel. We had this crazy crew. They were British, and they wore Fez hats from India. They gave us a small cabin, eighteen nurses all together.

“Anyway, we got off OK. We came ashore Omaha Beach on a landing barge and were put in trucks. We came through Saint Lo, and the only thing standing was part of the mayor’s house and the chimney. This was after D-Day, but it looked like it had just happened. There wasn’t that much there, pretty flat.”

Howard’s background was used for a newspaper article. She also graduated in 1941 from a Wisconsin college in Racine with a degree in nursing and entered the Army as a second lieutenant.

“Both Howard and Elizabeth (a friend who was in the same graduating class) sought overseas service after they enlisted, but instead, they found themselves in Palm, Springs, Calif., where soldiers began their desert training 119 miles to the east of the Blythe Army Air Base (later 4th Air Force) before shipping off to North Africa. The El Mirado Hotel in Palm Springs, where the two nurses were assigned, became the Turney General Hospital.

“The sweltering desert heat affected the nurses because the only air conditioner was located at the soda fountain. While in Palm Springs, they also experienced Mother Nature’s fury: an earthquake.

 “’We had to set up the hospital, arrange the beds and order all the supplies that we might need,’ Howard recalled. ‘I was on the surgical ward for a year. When we came in, it was empty; when we left, every ward was full. Mary and I applied again for overseas service. We received orders in April 1943 to Camp Stoneman. We felt like we were there forever. There were no big hospital ships at that time. They were being built in San Pedro.’

“The nurses were assigned to the 521st Medical Hospital Ship Platoon (separate) and sailed with the troops. Howard said they sailed on two ships to and from Australia, the USS Lurine and the USS Monterey,  both converted hospital ship that belonged to the Matson Line. On their way home, Howard and Elizabeth sailed through the Panama Canal on their way to the ship’s home port of New York City.”

The nurse remembers once harrowing incident in 1945.

“Howard’s most harrowing day aboard the ship occurred six days after D-day in Okinawa. She will never forget April 29.  A Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed into the USS Comfort, killing 28 including six nurses and wounding 48.  Within minutes, the explosion destroyed the surgery, and two doctors died as did many patients and other medical personnel. The explosion picked up the 85-pound Howard and threw her against the bulkhead, injuring her spine and banging her head hard.

         ‘They sounded the alarm to abandon ship,’ she said. ‘That alarm was deafening, horribly loud. I could just hear the alarm because there was an outlet right in my ward. Then, I didn’t hear anything else till the next morning. I didn’t have an officer or medical man; no one came. They had all been killed. From that point on, we had no surgical officer as we sailed back to the states.’”

For more information on My Life My Story, contact Burr at 775-789-6637 or email [email protected]

Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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