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TONY COX, host:

Memorial Day honors soldiers who have died to protect our nation, but what about the doctors and nurses who risk everything to save those soldiers' lives?

Retired Brigadier General Rosetta Burke always dreamed of becoming a nurse, so in 1962 she joined the Army Reserve Nurse Corps to help pay for nursing school and to travel.

Three decades later, Burke made history, becoming the first female assistant adjutant general of the Army National Guard. She finally retired in 1997 after 35 years of military service. She is now president of the National Association of Black Military Women. General Burke told me that even when she was a little girl, she knew nursing was her calling.

Brigadier General ROSETTA BURKE (U.S. Army National Guard, Retired): Way back when, back in the late '30s, early '40s, there used to be posters, big posters where you drive by and you will see these women in white, all in white, and maybe with a cape on, generally a blue cape.

In the side of it, the right side generally was flung over her shoulder, and that would show a little red. And she would have a white cap on, and that looked so dignified, and it looked like she would be so helpful, and they were calling for nurses. So as a little girl, I liked that poster, and I wanted to be one.

I also had a sister - God bless her soul, she passed away last year - who was a nurse and had come home to help my mother with my birth. So she, in front of me, was also a reckoning for me to become a nurse.

COX: Do you think that during your time in the military, that you faced discrimination - if you did - more for being a woman than for being a black person?

Brig. Gen. BURKE: I kind of want to say more for being a woman. The issue of my being a black woman was the double whammy, if you can understand where I'm coming from.

COX: I can.

Brig. Gen. BURKE: In the military, it was because we wore skirts. That was a big, big problem as far as I was understanding. They didn't want us going into fox holes, even though they taught us how to dig one.

COX: Did they say why?

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Oh, you don't want me to say that over the phone.

COX: Okay. I could imagine why.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Yes, you could imagine why. Whatever it has to do with women that's different from men, that would be a problem for the military.

COX: Is there a patient that stands out in your mind, in your history, in your memory, that you dealt with that just really sticks with you?

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Yeah. When I was a lieutenant and Vietnam was just starting to wind down and they were sending back various wounded people through what they called triage to wherever they lived, close to wherever they lived, I was able to go to Fitzsimmons, which is down in Colorado, for my two weeks of annual training. And I can remember one young man who came off the plane. His eyes were open and he couldn't see. He didn't hear. He barely felt anything. He bumped into people as he went, not knowing that he was bumping into them.

The story behind why he was not able to see, even though his eyes were open, was because for him to get back to the familiar lines, he had to crawl by night and hide in the daytime in various foxholes that were filled up with pieces of his comrades, and he recognized some of those pieces.

When he got back all the way to Colorado, he was totally gone, and it's understandable. I mean just - my heart just went out to know that war can do a lot of things, and we really need to be cognizant that when people come back, how many problems they have, not only physically but mentally.

COX: You know, you opened the door, General, for women by becoming - in many ways - but one of those ways was by becoming the first female assistant adjutant general of the Army National Guard. And my question has to do with that kind of legacy, because if you look at the men who have gone on to become generals with multiple stars, they're gray-haired and distinguished looking, but you don't see a lot of gray-haired female generals anymore.

Brig. Gen. BURKE: And that's so true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Brig. Gen. BURKE: And I doubt very seriously we will for a long time to come.

COX: Why? Why do you think that?

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Most women who are becoming generals are in their late 50s, and they don't stay that long to get the multiple stars.

COX: General, this is something that I've often wondered, and it may sound silly, and I just don't know the answer, but I'm gonna ask you, okay?

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Okay.

COX: And that's this - because you are a general, I know that people have to salute you, but do they say, yes sir, no sir?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Yes, they do. They say sir, and then they think about it, and then they say ma'am, and I tell them it's quite all right, I understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, General, yes ma'am. Thank you very much for coming on. I really do appreciate it.

Brig. Gen. BURKE: Well, I thank you for the interview. It's been a good one.

COX: Retired Brigadier General Rosetta Burke is the first female assistant adjutant general of the Army National Guard. She's currently president of the National Association of Black Military Women.

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