There’s no simple reason why Greg Burham walked from Alaska to Mexico in 1974.
People called him crazy for even setting out on the hike that began in Hyder, Alaska, on June 19 and ended five months later, on the nose, at the Mexican border town of Sonoyta.
Maybe he was.
“But it was a different kind of crazy,” Burham writes in his book “One Step At A Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home.” Hot off the press, the memoir by the Missoula man was published by Phoca Press, which specializes in works related to Naval special warfare.
Following a standout high-school basketball career at Flathead High in Kalispell and, as a senior, at Missoula Sentinel for Coach Lou Rocheleau, the 6-foot-6 Burham spent a hitch in Vietnam as an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) SEAL.
He came back to an America, a Missoula and a University of Montana that greeted its returning warriors with a level of antagonism that Burham still can’t comprehend – from television shows and movies he says depicted “evil/crazy Vietnam veterans” to his fellow students to professors and to the girls he dated briefly, until they found out he’d fought for “the man.”
“I understood the pro-peace, anti-war position,” Burham says. “But the anti-military, anti-veteran stuff was very difficult to tolerate.”
Yes, he suffered from what later was recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from those days on the Mekong Delta. Still does. Now 67, Burham has weekly sessions with a Missoula trauma therapist to cope.
He also has lunch regularly at the Village Senior Residence with centenarians Ty Robinson and 104-year-old Emma Lommasson, who as registrar was one of the few people at UM who showed support and comfort for Vietnam vets. Burham said his mother, Cecelia, secretary to Grizzly athletic director Jack Swarthout, was another.
All that hostility weighed on the mind of the strapping, handsome 25-year-old when he dropped out of school, quit his job with his childhood friend and Kalispell teammate Doug Bitney at Sparta Health Spa (now the Women’s Club) on Bow Street and started walking.
“I was free from the day-to-day grind of school and work. I was free from being judged negatively. I had nothing before me but the open road and the incredible beauty of nature,” he wrote. “This gives you some idea of why this freedom thing was such a big deal for me. From all kinds of pressure to none at all felt great.”
Freedom did ensue. So did blisters and bugs, a backpack that weighed 80 pounds fully stocked, rain, snow at the Grand Canyon and an amazing, unvarying stream of warm strangers.
A Missoula buddy, Buzz Blastic, rode the ferry to Ketchikan, Alaska, and walked with Burham the first few days wearing an “impossibly large” 10-gallon hat. A 29-year-old hitchhiker named Dick Martin accompanied him the last 150 miles into Banff, Alberta, and for a day in Arizona. George Ganoung, a UDT SEAL teammate in training and in Vietnam, hiked the final 80 miles with Burham, from Gila Bend to Mexico.
Sometimes turning down a half-dozen offers for rides a day, Burham hiked 650 miles through British Columbia and 450 through Alberta before he reached the U.S. at the Chief Mountain Port of Entry near Glacier National Park.
It was Sept. 5 – 40 years ago Monday – when a four-wheel drive pulled off in front of him as Burham plodded down the north side of Interstate 90 a few miles west of Missoula. A bearded man jumped out and started taking his picture. Eventually the man introduced himself as Missoulian photographer Harley Hettick.
Burham laid over in Missoula for the Sept. 14 wedding of his younger brother Kevin and Jeannie Yovetich in Rose Park, a marriage that continues 42 years later.
While he was there, at Hettick’s urging, he contacted the Missoulian and a write-up on Burham’s walk appeared in the Sept. 15 paper. In her final paragraph, Debbie McKinney wrote, “Burham plans to return to Missoula to finish school after the hike. He said he is keeping a fairly accurate journal and hopes to ‘put something together’ in way of a book to share his experiences.”
Burham chuckled about that last week. The book, he said, has been a long time coming.
He stayed with the Ganoungs in Tucson for a time, during which he borrowed their cassette tape recorder. With map and his journal in hand he talked his way back through the hike, recording eight hours' worth.
A few months later he met Leslie Young in Denver. They married in 1976. They had twins, Anna and John, now 36; and then Jake, who’s 32. All three are graduates of Hellgate High School, where Leslie teaches today.
Burham returned to UM and finished his bachelor's degree in 1977, then went to work for the Missoula Youth Court’s foster care program. He struggled with PTSD and joined with other veterans to advocate for a Veterans Center in Missoula. With the help of Rep. Pat Williams they succeeded in 1985.
Burham received a master's degree in counseling in 1987 and continued working with veterans groups around Missoula.
In 1988, while the Cold War was still chilling, he and four other Vietnam vets from Missoula were in one of three troupes invited to visit the Soviet Union to help counsel "Afghantsies"– Russian soldiers suffering PTSD from the war in Afghanistan. The trip was made into a PBS documentary “Brothers in Arms.”
Burham’s book includes a number of photos from the trip. In one he’s sitting in a veterans' hospital amid smiling Afghan patients and a smiling KGB security agent who was assigned to “babysit” the American visitors.
The agent “was so glad we were connecting and helping them with their PTSD,” Burham last week.
Years later, he realized who the agent was when he saw news accounts of Russia’s new president – Vladimir Putin.
In 2007, Burham retired from his job as team leader at the Missoula Vet Center, where he’d worked for 14 years. He reflected on his walk of 1974 in another Missoulian story.
“What I needed to do was restore my faith in humanity, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “I found people who took me for who I was, and found a goodness that I wasn’t sure existed anymore.”
He has remained active on a volunteer basis with PTSD counseling, manning Veterans Administration outreach booths at East and West Coast UDT-SEAL reunions in Virginia and California and the annual “muster” at the UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.
It wasn’t until two years ago that he dug out the old cassette tapes of his walk. Burham said he’s indebted to Taran Kahler, a computer expert and son of a former co-worker at Missoula Youth Court, Patta Kahler. Taran spent hours converting the eight hours of tape into text. “One Step at a Time” rose out it, slowly.
The book is an attractive 214-page hardbound, with color photos throughout. The cover design and graphics, including maps of each segment of the journey, are by Vietnam combat veteran Roman Kuczer of Missoula. Burham worked for months with Phoca Press editor Lisa Merriam before his book hit the presses in July.
Seeing the finished product proved therapeutic in itself.
"Oh, gosh, yes," Burham said. "The fact that it got published helped me considerably, physically and emotionally."
“Greg Burham went on after his time on the SEAL teams to become one of the most productive members of our society despite dealing with the difficulties of PTSD,” said Tom Hawkins, founder and CEO of Phoca Press. “His work bringing PTSD discussion to the forefront in the Navy SEAL community was ground-breaking and essential."
Burham's inspiring story is "a great narrative, a remarkable journey of life and healing," Hawkins said. "Every reader will want to grab their hiking boots and hit the road.”