March 26, 2014

KITCHELL: Burks a case for cutting through red tape


---- — On the east wall of the main dining room at Logansport’s West Side Diner, there is a tribute to a customer who is well known in Logansport’s east end.

He is Charlie Burks, a retired federal agent, who often eats with his wife next to the wall.

The tribute is unusual in that incorporates a Norman Rockwell portrait of what discrimination in the Deep South was like in the 1950s and early 1960s when school desegregation was ordered by the courts. In that picture, a young African-American student is ushered to a new school by federal agents — people like Charlie.

In fact, Charlie was on a college campus in the South when it admitted its first African-American student. At a point when racial tensions in this country were arguably at their highest fever pitch, the calm, bespectacled Charlie was dispatched into a hotbed of hate to guarantee what we refer to in our “Pledge of Allegiance” as “liberty and justice for all.”

Charlie, now in his 90s, is remembered on a wall, but he has been forgotten by the same government he worked for decades ago. Charlie was a POW in World War II, captured behind German lines. He was wounded, but to this day, he has yet to receive a Purple Heart he paid for with his own blood over a half century ago.

It could — and should be argued that Charlie has paid forward for generations of Americans who can afford to take what he and other agents like him did for them. Many people like Charlie died either on foreign soil or in this country. Many like Charlie were willing to die for this cause we call freedom. Many like Charlie wouldn’t have become federal agents after being in World War II because they could claim justly that they already sacrificed years of their life for their country. Charlie gave more.

Efforts have been made to secure that Purple Heart for Charlie, but what has been gleaned from his story is that government red tape trumps even Purple Hearts due to the men and women who serve this country. These are people who became blind or disabled just because the enemy saw them as Americans, and that was all the excuse they needed to drop bombs on them, fire shots at them, bury land mines beneath the ground where they would walk and fire torpedoes and depth charges on ships and submarines bearing the American flag.

People like Charlie could be said to be having “Purple Heart attacks” because of the frustration and the long wait they have had for something due them that most Americans fortunately never qualify to have.

While Charlie Burks did his part to secure justice for all during the Great War and during the great years that followed it when civil rights led Martin Luther King to the same area of the country where Charlie served, the nation isn’t doing its part to secure the justice that Charlie deserves — a Purple Heart. Because he fought for our liberty, the federal government shouldn’t take liberty of its responsibility to recognize those who have represented this country in combat and had a brush with death or gone days and weeks without knowing if they would live or die.

For justice to be done in his case, it’s time for federal officials to do what it takes to make a Purple Heart a reality for Charlie. The time to honor him is now.

Of course, the wheels of government don’t move that fast, but it would be appropriate for Indiana’s congressional delegation to set Memorial Day as a goal for honoring a man who deserves to be honored at a time when the United States is losing scores of World War II vets every day. If the federal government doesn’t act, then we’ve lost sight of what the price of “liberty and justice for all” really was.

If necessary, it would be appropriate for Indiana congressmen from both parties to sponsor “private legislation” honoring him and according the honor of a Purple Heart. Indiana veteran organizations, including the Indianapolis-based American Legion, should join forces and write, call and email members of Congress and the Veterans Administration to ask them to act, and act now.

It has been said before that justice delayed is justice denied. Justice for Charlie has been delayed too long. It should not be delayed any further, and it should not be denied.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at