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Burke's 30 years with the Navy provides insight on world issues

Monday, March 21, 2011

Former Monettan Captain Randy Burke, son of Judge Dale and Sharon Burke, of Monett, spoke on a wide range of pressing international issues during Contemporary Issues Day at Monett High School on Friday. The day of topical discussions is sponsored annually by the Monett Kiwanis Club and the Key Club.

Burke, who will retire from the U.S. Navy after 30 years of service later this year, spoke from experience about international piracy, life in a submarine and nuclear power issues. Burke is part of the team at the Junior Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., and previously served on a joint task force with United Kingdom, German and French Armed Forces in Djibouti in Somalia on the horn of Africa.

The Somali pirates represent an ongoing security concern off the African coast, which Burke's task force monitored. Pirates pose as fishermen, and within 15 minutes, can shift their small boats into attack mode. Burke said pirates are in business to make money. Their general strategy calls for capturing and holding a major ship and its crews for ransom. They threaten to kill their captives, and occasionally do.

Twenty nations have created a picket of ships offering a safe corridor through which help can come. Even so, Burke said it takes 30 minutes to respond. Arming ship's crews has proven more dangerous than simply hiring private guards, who may be as ruthless as the pirates themselves. A current strategy is for the ship's crew to retreat into a safe room and wait for reinforcements to arrive.

"The good thing about pirates is no one cares if you kill one," Burke said.

Nonetheless, Burke said stopping pirates is much harder than it seems on the surface. Pirates now operate as far out as 600 miles at sea, using bigger ships as a base. Because the support ships are not engaged in the act of piracy, they are generally free from prosecution under the long-established laws of the sea, which offer significant protection to vessels flying international flags.

"To stop the pirates, you've got to get the big guys," Burke said. "They're not on the little boats. Other countries often say, 'When is the U.S. going in to stop them?' No one wants to be the first one to put armed forces in the region."

Burke recounted what happened in the "Blackhawk Down" incident, where an American helicopter was shot down in Somalia and the soldiers killed. Taking guns away from one clan only leaves the remaining armed tribal clans stronger, upsetting the balance without improving safety.

The U.S. had attempted to go after clans attacking food aid distribution efforts in the "Blackhawk Down" situation, rather than simply protecting the food sources. Due to public outrage, U.S. forces withdrew and have not returned, Burke said.

"If piracy becomes big enough and has a serious economic impact, like raising insurance costs, if the price is too high, or if they make a mistake and kill too many people, then they will trigger a response," Burke said.

Life on a submarine

Burke recounted how on May 6, 1986, he was standing on the observatory station at the top of the USS Hawkville, one of two American nuclear submarines located at the North Pole. He heard his name called from across the water and turned to see he was being hailed by Rusty Nichols, with whom Burke had played Little League baseball at Monett's North Park.

"You never know where you will find some of your classmates," Burke said.

Neither knew where the other was serving at the time. The ice between the two subs broke up before the two Monettans could pose together for a photo.

Burke said life on a submarine is cramped. Crews work 18-hour days, standing watch for six hours then standing 12 hours on training and other duties. Subs can stay at sea for 110 days and are only limited by the amount of supplies they carry. Ten years ago when Burke was a submarine captain, the major entertainment was a movie shown once a day, a limitation decreased by newer technology today.

Nuclear submarines will always remain in use, Burke said. Today's diesel subs are quiet and less expensive, but in wartime a nuclear sub can get much closer to the enemy than any substitute.

Japan's nuclear problem

As someone who has worked closely with nuclear power on a submarine, Burke said the international atomic community shares the same assessment about the nuclear problem in Japan.

The tsunami flooded out the backup diesel generators to cool the impacted reactor. The second backup required hooking up another system of pipes to send cooling water into the reactor, but the pipes could not be reached because of debris spread by the tsunami.

Those opposed to nuclear energy have added their voices to the debate, making it harder to tell what is actually happening, said Burke. He expected the problem will remain localized and have a limited impact on the use of nuclear power, especially in specific applications like submarines.

Burke provided one of five presentations for the Contemporary Issues Day. Other speakers included: Mr. and Mrs. Dan Janssen, Monett R-1 School District teachers, on their experience teaching at a school in New Guinea; Sherman Honeycutt on major water supplies for the western United States; Gail Melgram, from the Tri-State Water Coalition, on future water supplies for southwest Missouri; and Cory Huckabee from Ralpha House, in Joplin, on human trafficking.

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