CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Post-9/11 Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit
Date: March 8, 2019
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Flavia Burton was born in May 1992 in Cape Verde. In her youth, she relocated to Brazil with her grandmother before moving to the United States at age fifteen.
Burton had difficulty adapting to her new life in the US and felt out of place in the society and culture. “Nobody really understood me,” she said. Her mother had to deal with financial hardship, while Burton herself struggled in school. A friend who Burton worked with at McDonald’s had good experiences in the military and inspired her to investigate military service as a career. It was not long before she fell in love with the US Marine Corps.
Burton enlisted in the Marines immediately after graduating from high school, and she headed to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. As an immigrant, she was not particularly interested in US foreign policy; rather, she joined the Marines seeking challenge and direction. “It seemed like it was hard,” Burton said, “but in my mindset, if I could come to the United States and basically try to pursue a dream, why not make it challenging and see how far I can go?… I joined the Marines to make it better for me and for my family, which it has.” She also saw the military as a path to help others in the world.
Though she invited challenge, many around Burton saw military service as excessively difficult, and they expected her to drop out of boot camp. She did not know what to expect and did indeed “struggle a lot.” At one point, Burton was instructed to jump into a pool off a tower. Her fear of heights overwhelmed her, and when the instructor pushed her off, she impulsively grabbed his legs, and pulled them both into the water! Her commissioning may have been delayed by a month, if one of the first sergeants, a female officer and a complete stranger, had not vouched for her. Fellow Marines like her with good intentions helped keep Burton going.
Burton saw these struggles as important learning and character-building experiences. As an immigrant, they helped her adjust to American life: “It made me see the world in a different perspective.” She also described a special, powerful, but difficult to describe feeling of energy associated with it all that she longed for once more. “I would do boot camp all over again,” she remarked.
Burton’s graduation unexpectedly turned out to be quite emotional. Due to travel uncertainties, Burton did not expect her mother’s company, but she ultimately pulled through and showed up to the big day. Burton was subsequently assigned to training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. She did not like the experience there; though there was camaraderie, it was overshadowed by the instructors’ sexist and excessively tough stance with the female marines. As the only female in her unit, Burton was especially picked on, and she was often required to perform humiliating, boot camp-esque acts, such as running for no reason. She lamented that she was depressed and felt out of place; yet, in the end, these tribulations made her stronger. “You can’t let that get to your head,” Burton asserted, “you’ve got to brush it off, and just be better than them.” She put up with the treatment and dedicated her time to physical and mental improvement, soon excelling ahead of her peers. Burton told herself, “I would never let a Marine have the opportunity of saying: ‘It’s because you’re a female.’” In the future, her rank and capabilities allowed her to have authority in combating such sexism among her subordinates.
MOS School at Camp Johnson, North Carolina, was Burton’s next assignment. In contrast to her previous experience, she enjoyed her time there. Burton recalled that she was finally in a “normal mindset” and could go to the mall and have fun after class. She described it as a “college-type” scene, but with “extremely strict rules.” Burton’s stay was brief, however, and after two months, she was ordered to CLR-27 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Unfortunately, Burton’s experience at Camp Lejeune was negative. She was rather detached from the rest of the unit and worked in a warehouse, but she did not wish to elaborate further. After a year, to her great relief, Burton was transferred to the Second Supply Battalion. The unit had the largest population of female Marines of any in the service, which made her feel at home. Her staffing COTC, also a female, encouraged her, and made her see that she was “good at being a Marine”.
Over the next months, Burton was attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, where she received several promotions, working her way up to the rank of corporal. Then, for nine months (the standard eight, plus one prior as part of the “advance deployment” force), from December 2013 to October 2014, she deployed overseas. Sailing with the USS Mesa Verde, Burton visited various countries across Europe and the Middle East, including Spain, Croatia, Israel, the UAE, Djibouti, Oman, and Jordan. This coincided with the Islamic State’s rise and the coalition response (Operation Inherent Resolve); she recalled that her fleet received a threat of a bombing attack by ISIS. Burton was also involved in an accident while returning to her ship from Djibouti; a bird strike on an engine caused her aircraft to crash into the ocean. Fortunately, she escaped uninjured and there were no fatalities, though she recalled that one of her comrades had had his “face messed up” after luggage hit him.
On deployment, Burton worked in Logistics, tracking supply orders, following up with vendors, as well as checking inventory to see what needed to be put on order. “I loved it,” she noted. “I was really good at that job. So good that every inspection I [did], I would pass with flying colors.” She mentioned her promotion to sergeant at this time; but, more significantly, she met her future spouse, who had joined the Marines after 9/11. After falling for each other while at sea, they made plans to marry and get an apartment after their deployment. Fortunately, after just four months of knowing each other, they were able to do just that! “Everything happens so quickly in the military,” Burton explained; the high-energy nature of things seemed to speed up life. The fact that married personnel did not have to live in barracks was another perk, she cheerfully added. Her husband left the military just after their deployment.
Upon returning to the United States, Burton was ordered to CLB-25 in Red Bank, New Jersey, where she worked in fiscal matters, managing the unit’s funds and organizing hotels. She was later moved to Marine Air Group 49 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Burton loved her time there and was promoted to her highest rank of staff sergeant. She took pride in the fact that she had achieved this rank in an unprecedented six years (as opposed to the typical eight). At Fort Dix, Burton taught seminars as an instructor to other Marines. It was her favorite job, as she enjoyed human engagement with students and wanted “to be the person to inspire them.” Burton was touched when a female Marine approached her at the end of one class and told her, “I finally have someone to look up to.”
Burton left the military in 2018 as her shifting military assignments put much financial and mental stress on her family. However, she noted that, “It was a hard decision; because, I wanted to become a drill instructor… I wanted to become a master gunnery sergeant.” After her discharge, Burton used her GI Bill to attend school at Pace University. She recalled an emotional moment when a teary-eyed fellow student, whose father was killed on 9/11, thanked her for her service. This instance epitomized Burton’s other primary reason for service: “I’m the type of person that, you know, I want to make a difference and help people.”
Now employed as a real estate agent, Burton specializes in helping veterans. “I want to give back to the community… because I know the stress that comes with moving.” In addition, she is a member of the Marine Corps League, is involved with the Regional Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey and is a volunteer at a local animal shelter. In the future, Burton is slated to teach veterans about home buying. On June 8, 2019, she was one of the first war veterans to have a Quilt of Valor presented to her at the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.