Military service requires bravery. Service Members put their lives on the line for others, and that willingness for self-sacrifice is often a part of the military ethos which inspires so many men and women to join. With such high stakes and incredible responsibilities, young service members mature quickly but can struggle to maintain that discipline after separating from military service. “You’re in this bubble where it’s sort of hard to get into trouble. There’s always people to catch you and sweep you into your room. You’re watching each other’s backs and making sure they stay out of trouble. I acted like I still had that net. That was the beginning of the ‘oh crap’”.
Justin Burk joined the U.S. Marine Corps in January of 2008, while still a student at Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) in Milwaukee, WI. Burk graduated from Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School in New Ulm, MN, and attended WLC to study vocal and trumpet performance. As more student loans and tuition payments became daunting to consider, Burk remembers floundering and feeling unsure of his future career path. The college student said to himself, “I’m gonna let someone else make my decisions for a few years and get any future college paid for.”
While financial possibilities motivated the final push, Justin had long since been interested in a career in the military. As a child, he was inspired by military values of honor and brotherhood as well as the examples set by family members serving in various branches. When Justin began Marine Recruit Training in San Diego, CA, he encountered many people who did not share those same motivations, beliefs, and values. Although reality differed greatly from his expectations, Justin felt the accomplishments of completing recruit training, boot camp, and combat training, before beginning job school in Pensacola, FL, for one and a half years.
Justin completed schooling to become a Radar Maintenance Technician, one of the longest school pipelines available. Burk laughs, “It’s funny, because I left to get out of school and ended up getting basically an associate’s degree.” Burk enjoyed his time in school and working on field deployable radar systems, which he describes as “the kind of stuff you can drop in the middle of a desert and turn into an airfield.” Justin remembers training for high-intensity situations at school, and described how he would practice live troubleshooting and finding alarming circuits while supervisors smacked pool noodles on the table in the middle of his workspace.
After serving on a watching detachment, a position for already existing air stations, Burk hoped to go overseas and got his wish. A moving crew came to pack his things, labelled it with his social security number, and packed it on a C-130. He was stationed in Japan for the following two years as a Radar Station Maintainer and simultaneously trained on a civilian system. Burk was able to help oversee facilitating and installing processes, signing for multi-million dollar equipment, and checking that everything was up to standard and working properly.
While living in Japan, Justin appreciated experiencing Japanese culture and playing rock music, on and off base. As he settled in and became comfortable with military life, it became all too easy to be negatively influenced by his peers. Burk states, “My faith walk was pitiful during service. I made some really bad decisions that changed me for the worse. I strayed pretty far, but I always had Jesus in my heart.” Justin attended church on a regular basis during his training, but states that at the time it was often simply an escape from the rigors of training.
One of Justin’s favorite memories was made in Japan when he was able to attend a meritorious paperboard, a process only available to specially selected members. Each section of a squadron nominates the Marine who they deem to be the best and most qualified candidate. A jacket of writing must be submitted which details why the Marine was chosen, their physical training statistics, medals, projects, extracurriculars, and anything else which proves that the individual is the “best” Marine. The goal for submitters is to have their Marine be selected for the top eight, and ultimately be selected as the best Marine. Burk was a finalist in his section and one of those top eight marines. As a result, the Operations Commander and the Squadron Commanding Officer flew a ten-passenger plane on an island-hopping trip, taking the top eight marines as their passengers. Justin was able to see amazing World War II sites such as Iwo Jima Island, Tinian, and Tank Beach on the Island of Saipan, as well as beautiful South Pacific landscapes along the Marianas Trench.
When his time in Japan was over, it was time for Justin to move onto his next station. He put in a preference for the West Coast with hopes of returning to the area near his childhood town. At the time, a friend of Justin’s who he had previously played shows with was traveling all over California and making music. Justin had hopes of going with him and fulfilling a rockstar dream. Instead, Burk returned to Pensacola, FL as a barracks manager. Although it wasn’t his desired location, Justin enjoyed the benefits of being one of the higher ranked Marines on base and had fun completing room inspections and spurring on many young Marines to rid their rooms of trash bags and pizza boxes as quickly as possible after waking from a deep sleep. After a quick promotion to Sergeant, Burk separated from military service one week later.
Justin soon began working as an installation tech for a company in Franklin, WI, traveling all over the country. He didn’t feel the transition of missing his comrades and coworkers, because he maintained a lifestyle of constant movement and travel. During that time, he also carried the guilt of un-Christian actions and decisions made while in the military. Throughout his struggles, Justin remembers going back to WLC to visit his sister in college and attending chapel with her from time to time. He states that no matter how difficult life got, “I always had Jesus in my heart.” Still, Burk described living in a dangerous “nothing can touch me” phase and became comfortable with living in gray areas.
During that time, Justin was working for a company that gave him the opportunity to move to California for a position, and it looked as though Justin would finally be able to pursue his music dreams. The week before he was scheduled to move, he received a DUI while returning home from a party. Burk reflects feeling like he had received a message from God, “This dream and what you want is not what I have in store.” Although the years that followed were difficult, Burk remains thankful to God for setting him back on track and states that following his own plan would have likely consumed his life.
Soon, Justin used his GI Bill benefits to attend the Institute of Production and Recording in Minnesota to learn about lighting and sound for film. He began to get connected with NorthCross Lutheran Church in Lakeville, MN, and says it felt like home as soon as he started to attend. Burk reflects, “A few times sitting there really hit hard. A couple Sundays with tears and wondering, ‘Who did I become?’” Justin surrounded himself with people grounded in Christian values, and soon found himself making more positive choices. He volunteered to run the sound board during church services and built his job resume providing audio services at different venues, earning respect, and making connections. He married his wife, Jessica, in 2021 and is the proud father of 11-month-old son, Maverick. No, Justin assures, not after the movie, “well maybe a little.”
Eventually, his pastor notified him of a tech position opening up for the church, and Justin accepted. “I was happier than ever. You could see God’s hand in all of it. ‘You’re gonna go home and do audio stuff so you can serve at NorthCross.’ It’s cool to see the finger of God in your life like that sometimes.” In addition to serving as Technical Director at NorthCross, Justin continues to use his musical talents by singing at services and playing country music at local shows with a friend. Burk also assists with Starting Point classes at NorthCross, a 10-week doctrinal class for new attendees and members.
Although serving in the military presented many obstacles for Justin’s faith life, God ultimately used his perfect plans to strengthen Justin’s faith. Because of the skills he gained, both through school and military training, many in his congregation can be blessed by his talents and work. Burk urges anyone considering military service to stay connected to faith and family and to “put on the full armor of God before you learn to put on physical armor.”
Written by Natalie Lendt, 2023