Michael W. Burns. Photo by Paralyzed Veterans of America
Michael W. Burns has worn many hats in his life.
Michael W. Burns has worn many hats in his life: Naval aviator in Vietnam, public servant, cross-country traveler, author and husband.
However, it was his time on Capitol Hill, facing bureaucrats head on and arguing for the rights of veterans with disabilities, as well as his work for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) that means so much to so many. It’s no coincidence he was the recipient of the Speedy Award, PVA’s highest honor, at PVA’s 70th Annual Convention in Jacksonville, Fla., in May.
Without Burns, PVA would look a whole lot different from the way it does today. That’s because in 1971, he successfully lobbied Congress for the organization’s federal charter, which enables PVA to represent veterans in claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and subsequently the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Burns’ PVA journey began when he met PVA Cal-Diego Chapter founder Jim Smith and former PVA National President Patterson Grissom at the VA Long Beach Medical Center. They encouraged him to join.
He eventually became president of the PVA California Chapter and was later appointed as PVA’s national executive director by Carlos Rodriguez, who became PVA’s national president.
In addition to lobbying for the federal charter, Burns says he was proud of his role in helping establish PVA’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Foundation. He’s humble when it comes to his part in securing the federal charter.
Michael Burns and his faithful van, "La Coachasita". PVA Publications File Photo
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was executive director when they called the bill up, and they asked me to testify. [Former Executive Director] Howard Bennett from Virginia probably did more testifying than I ever did. Part of the testimony I remember I gave was part of Howard’s stuff, and one of the things he said was that PVA was the only veterans group that was in business to try to put itself out of business, if we could ever find a cure for spinal-cord injury. But in the meantime, we’d like to have the right to represent claims before the agency of our membership and others. A lot of people for a lot of years had been pushing to get the PVA charter. I just happened to be the guy … that night. I don’t know, maybe they liked my Irish smile.”
Making A Difference
During several Los Angeles field hearings on the VA, Burns got to know late Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). Cranston was chairman of a Senate subcommittee that handled the substance of the VA.
“He got a lot of money committed to the VA through the Appropriations Committee, and he was a very big champion of veterans,” Burns says. “He believed if you were going to send people to war, you’d better take care of them when they got home … Those kinds of advocates are not around.”
Burns also became close with Cranston’s counsel Jonathan Steinberg, who later became one of the first judges on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
“He was sort of my mentor; he was probably a genius,” Burns says of Steinberg. “He probably could have made millions on the outside.”
Burns decided to leave PVA to work for Cranston and became the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee program director in 1980.
“I don’t think I would have left PVA for many things, except I was a political science major in college and I studied American government, so it was a round peg in a round hole for me,” Burns says. “Two days a week, I would wander over to Capitol Hill and climb out of my car, and of course there weren’t any curb cuts, and police would help jump you up the curb. You rarely had meetings with senators. You’re meeting with staff, because as we used to say, ‘Staff make the sausage.’”
Burns retired in 2001 at age 58 and wanted to travel when he came across an ad for a new accessible travel van.
“I was talking to a physical therapist friend about it and said, ‘What you do think about this?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s kind of nuts. It’s only 20 feet long and 9 feet wide, but if you want to live like that, that’s your problem,’ ” Burns says. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to buy it, and I’m going to go visit every relative I have, living and dead,’ just to prove that I’d made it. It was sort of my victory lap when I retired.”
He spent the next 11 years traveling the country solo.
“I was about three-quarters of the way through a trip and staying in a campground by myself, and I thought, ‘I really like this. This is really fun,’” Burns says. “It’s kind of like the Navy. You learn how to fold things and use little spaces. It was fascinating.”
Having grown up outside of
New York City and living most of his life in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Burns also became fascinated with small towns.
“I spent a lot of time in the Dakotas before they discovered oil, and there are towns under 200 and 100 [people],” he says. “I could not understand how anybody could stay there for 18 years and be sane, because everybody must know when you walk out your front door.”
By 2011, Burns had driven his van about 275,000 miles. He wrote a blog and several articles for PN magazine and even wrote a book about his travels. In addition, he’s written three fiction books and has another novel he intends to self-publish.
Burns now lives in Carlsbad, Calif., with his wife of nearly 50 years, Joanne. He watched PVA grow from a cadre of volunteers to a professional organization with a great deal of responsibility. He says it was nice to receive the Speedy Award.
“Being a staff person, you get a lot of reward but not a lot of award,” he says. “You don’t get awards for being a staff guy … for pushing the paper around or carrying the briefcase. But it was something I enjoyed doing very much, being on top of things. If somebody looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘How much does this bill cost?’ and I could answer the question, I felt good about that.”
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