SALT LAKE CITY — For the record, the first female general in the history of the Utah National Guard did not grow up dreaming of being one.
And it had nothing to do with the fact that in 1966, the year she was born, there were exactly zero women generals in the entire United States armed forces.
It’s just that for Christine Burckle, life has always been more about the flight than the landing. The places she’s been, the things she’s accomplished — becoming drum major in her high school band, getting an ROTC full-ride college scholarship and topping out as wing commander in her unit, finishing at the top of her class at navigator school, having Tom Clancy write about her in one of his books, winding up in Utah, of all places — all came from putting one foot in front of the other and seeing what came next.
Then one day she woke up and — voila! — she was a general.
As the new brigadier general related last summer when she was sworn in as the Utah National Guard’s first woman one-star in its 122 years of existence, even discovering her love for flying was sheer happenstance. It just so happened that her older brother, Michael Brinkman, had an earache the day Burckle’s father, Tom Brinkman, planned to take Michael with him on a ride in a friend’s private plane.
“Hey, Chris. You want to go?” he asked his 9-year-old daughter.
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Burckle liked flying so much she first thought she would become an astronaut — but that was before the guidance counselor at her high school in Connecticut suggested she might want to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
The tests see if you have something in you that would lend well to military service. The counselor thought maybe Burckle did. She didn’t come from a military family, but she took hard classes and got A’s, she was a student body officer, and she was drum major of the Trumbull High School Golden Eagle Marching Band, the pride of the town.
“The band at Trumbull was not like the band at a lot of schools. You were kind of on a par with the athletes,” explains Michael Brinkman, who was a senior trumpet player when his sister was named drum major her junior year.
Burckle held the position for two years, leading the band to success at national competitions, as well as at the Orange Bowl Parade in Florida.
“I watched her gain respect from people because she took her job seriously and she was very mature,” Brinkman said. “I saw those leadership qualities in my sister from the very start.”
On the guidance counselor’s advice, Burckle took the military aptitude test. At Trumbull High’s senior night, she was floored with the news that she’d been awarded an Air Force ROTC scholarship, good for a full ride at the college of her choice. She chose the University of North Carolina because her father’s job had transferred him near there.
If Burckle wasn’t the greenest cadet they’d ever seen, she was close.
“I showed up for my first ROTC class completely clueless,” she confesses. “The administrative clerk looked at me and said, ‘Cadet’ — I didn’t even know I was a cadet — ‘you need to button your jacket.’ I was like, 'Oh, OK.' I had on the hat. He said, ‘You don’t wear the hat inside.’”
Four years later, graduating with a degree in math and as cadet wing commander, ROTC’s highest rank, that same sergeant was there when she was awarded her commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
“He gave me my first salute,” Burckle remembers. “I looked at him and said, ‘Well, we’ve come a long way sergeant.’ He was like, ‘Yes, you have.’”
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Burckle began her eight-year active duty commitment at Mather Air Force Base in California, where she completed specialized undergraduate navigator training. After a year, she finished top in her class, giving her first choice of aircraft. She requested the B-52 bomber.
Burckle was told to make another choice. The reason: Women couldn’t fly in bombers.
This was in 1990. Women may have climbed by then to account for 20 percent of the military, but limits remained.
“I absolutely got made aware of hurdles for women to overcome in the service,” says Burckle. “I mean, here I was, and I’m not trying to brag, but I was No. 1 in my class so you’re supposed to get your pick, and I put B-52 and they’re, ‘Come on, you can’t fly that.’ I said, ‘OK, what can I fly? I guess I’ll have to order it that way.’”
Burckle got instead the KC-135 Stratotanker, the huge flying gas stations that refuel the bombers in midair.
“I’ll be honest,” she confesses, “I’m kinda glad I didn’t get the B-52 because if you see where the navigators sit, it’s down underneath and you don’t get to look outside.”
Three months into her first duty assignment at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, Burckle's squadron was deployed to be part of Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq.
No one considered whether she was a woman or a man or a Martian when Burckle, despite her youth and inexperience, was lead navigator on an 18-ship formation of KC-135s that refueled the bombers that struck Baghdad on Jan. 16, 1991, and didn’t let up for 42 straight days.
“I look back now and think, 'I was a lieutenant. Are you kidding me? They put me on that plane?' But I had a lot of faith in the leadership. I felt very confident in my squadron and I had the training I needed,” she said.
Burckle's final active duty assignment was at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. By now, promoted to captain, she was on a training flight in 1994 when author Tom Clancy climbed aboard as a special guest.
Clancy, of “The Hunt for Red October” and other best-selling war book fame, was working on his nonfiction book “Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing” that would be published the next year.
Here’s what Clancy wrote about the lead navigator he met that day:
“We went forward to learn about navigation from the attractive navigator, Captain Christine Brinkman. ‘Brink,’ as she is called, might look like a high school cheerleader, but she is one of two experienced female navigators in the 366th Wing. After learning from Brink how to navigate by ‘shooting the sun’ through a sextant in the aircraft’s ceiling, we sat back and enjoyed the smooth, though noisy, ride of the venerable airplane.”
Burckle's 15 minutes of fame over, as well as her eight-year commitment, in 1996 she planned to leave the Air Force and see about settling down. She was just 30, single, and had always wanted to open her own small business.
That might have been that if not for Chris Hawkins, a Utah Air National Guard pilot who met Burckle when she was Brinkman and he was on temporary loan to the regular Air Force at Mountain Home. When Hawkins learned of her plan to separate outright, he offered an alternative.
“Don’t throw away eight years of military service,” he suggested. “Join the Guard. You’ll have a great part-time job while you open your business.”
Hawkins added: “They fly the same planes in Utah you’re flying here.”
That is the long and the short of the story of how Capt. Brinkman wound up in Utah.
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With help from her younger brother, Matt Brinkman, who had just graduated with his marketing degree and agreed to come to Utah and help her get started, she opened a coffee bar called Espresso Italia at the Fashion Place Mall in Murray in 1997.
When she wasn’t running her business, she was flying with the Utah Guard. It was there she met George Burckle, a full-time Delta Air Lines pilot and part-time Guard flier whose path in getting to Utah and the National Guard made the route she took, by comparison, look well-thought out and plotted.
When he was 19, George Burckle and a friend were on their way from California to Colorado to find work at a ski resort. They stopped for gas at a 7-Eleven in Salt Lake City, saw a sign advertising jobs at Snowbird, and never made it to Colorado.
George Burckle wound up working as a bellman at Snowbird’s Iron Blosam Lodge (and doing a lot of skiing) before getting a degree in finance at the University of Utah. Then, because he’d always wanted to fly, he joined the Air Force and became a pilot.
After his eight-year active duty commitment, he returned to Utah, joined the Guard, hired on with Delta, and eventually met Christine.
Christine Burckle doesn’t remember making all that terrific of a first impression on her future husband.
“He was an airline pilot, he just did this part-time job, and here’s this girl who has all this active duty energy and is trying to tell him, ‘You’ve got to go to that meeting,’ and he’s like, ‘The tankers don’t go to those meetings,’” she says, laughing. “Two years after I met my husband, I think he decided he liked me.”
After dating for almost three years, they were married in 1998. Their honeymoon in the south of France lasted a grand total of two days because they made the mistake of answering their phones.
The Guard was on the line. They both had orders to return immediately so they could deploy with their unit to the Kosovo conflict in the Balkans.
Another deployment for both came in 2002, when the Utah Guard was activated in the wake of 9/11.
That deployment effectively signaled the end of Espresso Italia. Helping run a coffee shop in addition to working at his full-time job was quite a stretch for Matt Brinkman when the owner was always leaving for a war somewhere. Christine Burckle sold the business as she packed her bags for deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan.
George Burckle left to be part of Operation Enduring Freedom, but Christine Burckle never did — because two weeks before she was to ship out, she found out she was pregnant.
Kate Burckle came along in October 2002, shortly after her father returned from the front.
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As she settled down in Utah, Christine Burckle found herself facing her biggest transition yet in the military.
The Air Force grounded her.
It didn’t have anything to do with being a woman. By the early 2000s, GPS technology had proven sufficient to tell humans where they were and where they were going. Burckle and thousands of navigators just like her lost their seats on the airplane to computers.
The Utah Air National Guard assigned Burckle, who had been promoted to major in 1999, to the personnel office.
She went where she was told — but reluctantly — continuing to wear her flight uniform until her chief, not unlike the sergeant on the first day of ROTC, pulled her aside.
“I’ll never forget my chief came up to me and said, ‘Stop wearing your flight suit. You don’t fly anymore.’ That was hard. That flight suit was my uniform. I had my wings,” Burckle recalls, then adds, chuckling, “in the back of my mind, I hoped maybe they were going to call us back, tell us that GPS thing didn’t work out.”
As with the KC-135 instead of the B-52, Burckle proved adept at quickly adapting, but the experience was a huge eye-opener about the breadth and depth of a military operation.
“It was a big, huge humbling lesson for me,” she says. “Especially as a flier, you don’t understand those support personnel and how important they are. I began to see that no missions would ever take place, the entire base just couldn’t work, without the support of everyone involved. It is a massive machine. I think I always kinda knew that, but didn’t really know, until they were my people, until I was one of them. It’s funny, after that I was like, ‘OK, listen up pilots. You are not the only people who have a mission on this base.’”
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All the unscripted changes of direction in Burckle’s career conspired to give her a broad range of appreciation — for combat troops, for the administration, for those who get deployed, for those who stay home when their partner gets deployed, for getting transitioned from one assignment to another, for being a woman in the modern military.
At each stop along the learning curve, Burckle has found a way to thrive. In 2004, not long after being taken out of the planes, she was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in 2008, by which point she’d been placed in charge of human resources for the entire Guard — some 1,500 airmen and 5,500 Army personnel — she became a full colonel.
All of which led to her being named last summer, on July 22, 2016, a general at age 50. (In all, the Utah National Guard has five generals — adjutant general (two-star) Jeff Burton, who is commanding officer, and two brigadier generals (one-stars) apiece on the Army and Air Force arms. Burckle joins Kenneth Gammons as the Air Force generals. The Army generals are Thomas Fisher and Dallen Atack).
Female generals are not so much a rarity anymore — National Guard units in Minnesota, Arkansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Texas also announced their first women generals last summer — but you don’t have to go very far back to when it wasn’t even a possibility.
The first woman general in the U.S. armed forces was the Army’s Anna Mae Hays in 1970. In 1972, Alene Duerk became the first female admiral — the Navy’s equivalent of general. In 1973, Jeanne Holm became the Air Force’s first female general.
All this happened in Burckle’s lifetime, along with many more women military firsts. She was 10 when women were first admitted to the Air Force Academy in 1976. She was 20 when women were allowed to become pilots in 1986. She was 28 when women were cleared to serve in all positions except direct combat (including navigators in the B-52) in 1994. And just last summer, concurrent with her becoming a brigadier general, direct combat was opened to women.
For his part, as commanding officer of the Utah National Guard, Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton says that being a woman was not what got Burckle her star.4 comments on this story
“The playing field is level now,” Burton said. “It’s not based on gender. It’s about the best person. The reason I recommended her to Gov. (Gary) Herbert (who makes the ultimate decision) is because of the way she takes care of her people. She’s very competent, very adept at dealing with people in a positive way. When you see someone who goes the extra mile, who stays late, who cares about people, who doesn’t worry about what’s in it for them, it’s an easy call. It takes 30 years to make someone like Gen. Burckle.”
Thirty years of twists, turns, spurts and starts.
“I will tell you, I never aspired to be a general,” says Utah’s first female general. “I know that might sound disingenuous, but I think you get to a place where you feel like you’ve been preparing for that next step your entire career, and if you’re asked to take that next step, well, that’s what you do.”