September 2019 Hero of the Month: 99-year-old veteran reflects on 30 years of service

DENVER -- If you make it to your 99th birthday party, what do you hope those attending will say about the life you've lived?

For one Stapleton man, they talked about a full family life, 30 years of service to our country -- including serving during three wars -- and acting as a vital resource during the Cold War.

“My [driver's] license expired, and I got on the net, and it said, 'OK, if you're over 75, you've got to come in'," Ray Burns said.

Burns is over 75, so he went in to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Stapleton.

During his visit, a DMV employee made an interesting discovery of which Burns was totally unaware.

“I said, ‘Look, I just want to get my license renewed. Let's do that and I'll get out of your way'," Burns said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Do you realize you're the second-oldest living driver in the state of Colorado?’"

Burns is 99.

“He was so excited, I guess, he handed my license and said, 'Go over there.' And [I] didn't have to do an eye check!!” Burns said.

In his 99 years, Burns has seen lots of things evolve.

From growing up in rural Arkansas, he recalls it took a full day to get a mule drawn wagon to and from town.

The part of his life FOX31 wanted to commemorate as our September Hero of the Month is his service.

Burns first joined the National Guard in 1940.

He was stationed in Alaska along with his two brothers during WWII, where he built runways and fortifications to defend against the Japanese. Burns says he feels lucky he never had to go to combat, because many good men lost their lives fighting for our country.

“And my best friend, he was killed,” Burns said.

In 1945, Burns narrowly escaped being called to combat himself as a training replacement when WWII came to an end.

“I'm one of the lucky ones,” Burns said.

His service didn't stop there.

In fact, he'd go on to serve the next 25 years in the Air Force, supporting flights during the Korean War and then missiles and space vehicles during the Vietnam War.

As if he hadn't contributed enough, he became a vital resource for the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War.

Burns says it wasn't just him who showed a commitment to our country but also his childhood friend, lifelong love and wife, Emma Jean Burns. He’d always kept in touch with Jean, as he called her, via letters.

The couple went on to have two children, Danny and Donna. Danny was especially influenced by his father's path. He went to the Air Force Academy and served our country as a pilot.

“They were the greatest kids. That guy, he's 74 years old, my son, he's never said a cross word to me, not that I didn't deserve ‘em,” Burns said.

Burns says the secret to living this long: first, walk every day.

“I walked for 26 years, two miles a day,” Burns said.

Second, he says to eat well.

“The doctor says you live a long time if you cut out alcohol and sweets,” Burns said.

Lastly, he says, “You don't worry about those things you can't do anything about.”

After all, in the end, it's not just about living long -- it's about a life well lived.

Our thanks to our Serving Those Who Serve sponsors Rocky Mountain Honda dealers, the Leo Hill Charitable Trust and Colorado Veteran's Project for making a $750 Visa gift card available to Burns.

To nominate a veteran, active duty service member, volunteer or family member for our Hero of the Month honors, submit a nomination online.

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