Deployed to Africa, former ‘troubled teen’ continues to inspire others

Story by Staff Sgt. Steve Tressler, Task Force Longrifles Public Affairs

1SG Burns

1st Sgt. Burns, with the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery also works as an instructor at the Bluegrass Challenge Academy at Fort Knox, Ky. According to Burns, 10 former cadets serve with Task Force Longrifles on their deployment to the Horn of Africa. (Photo courtesy of Task Force Longrifles)

DJIBOUTU — Task Force Longrifles 1st Sgt. Robert Burns, a native of Atlanta, Ga., didn’t want to turn out like many of the guys he grew up with who were in “jail or dead” he said.  By his own admission, he was already in ‘the wrong crowd’ if he wanted succeed in life, and he knew it.  So, unlike many of his friends, he joined the Army.

“They thought I was crazy” said Burns, “but looking back now, I know I was one of the lucky ones.”

Burns is grateful today for many reasons, his faith, his wife Ashley, his children, and the Army. When asked what the Army has done for him he responded exasperated with, “What hasn’t it done?! Travel, adventure, life-changing experiences, physical, mental and spiritual growth, just everything.”

So in 1999 when Burns was asked to join the Bluegrass Challenge Academy as an instructor it was a perfect fit.

The Bluegrass Challenge Academy was a part of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program which began as a ten-state pilot program in 1993 by an act of Congress. In 1998, following a comprehensive evaluation, Congress approved the Challenge program as a permanent program. Since then, the program has grown to include 33 sites in 27 states and Puerto Rico.

The program would also provide Burns a chance to make a difference in the lives of young men and women. Men and women coming from the type of environments that he was once a part of, at their age.  Burns was already volunteering time with at-risk youth in the community so this would be nothing new to him.

“When they get here (Bluegrass Challenge Academy) they don’t know what to expect, but after the first few weeks they begin to get it and you see their whole outlook change. They get structure, which they never had before and didn’t know they needed and it makes a huge difference in how they conduct themselves and work” said Burns.

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Kentucky’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini shares a group photo with cadets from Bluegrass Challenge Academy at Fort Knox, Ky., Dec. 13, 2012. Kentucky has two academies in the state, with the second, the Appalachian Challenge Academy operating in Harlan, Ky. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond)

If you go to the website for the Bluegrass Challenge Academy, it has a picture of one of the cadets climbing a wall with the tagline of “Everything they need to pull themselves up.” The program is offered free of charge to its voluntary-only participants.

Its mission, said Burns, is to “intervene in the lives of 16-18 year old high school dropouts, and help them develop life skills, continue their education, and instill self-discipline so they can become productive citizens.” The numbers on their website speak for themselves below:

  • Over 54% of 2011 Challenge graduates received their high school diploma or GED.
  • Over 47% joined the work force.
  • 9% joined the military.
  • Nearly 44% continued their education.
  • Program participants have donated well over 5 million hours of community service during the program’s 16-year duration.
  • Programs have awarded graduates nearly 50,000 academic credentials since 1993.
  • Over 100,000 teens have graduated

For Burns though the best part of his job there, is seeing his Challenge Academy graduates here in Africa.  Ten of his former cadets became Soldiers and are all doing well here and that makes him proud of what he and his fellow instructors do for a living. They change lives everyday for the better, and those lives continue helping others.

To find out more about the Kentucky Youth ChalleNGe program call 1-877-KYYOUTH (877-599-6884)

Click here to contact the Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy at Fort Knox, Ky.

Click here to contact the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy at Harlan, Ky.

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