Navy Commander, with family ties to Kingsville, successfully completes 39-year Navy career

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Former Kingsville, Texas, resident Navy Cmdr. Karin Burzynski, a former managing editor of the Kingsville Record, officially concluded her naval career at the Navy Office of Community Outreach (NAVCO), Millington, Tennessee, on August 1, after 39 years of service.

Cmdr. Karin Burzynski poses for her  official Navy photo.

Her three daughters, Tina, Tasha and Tedi Brun, all attended Kingsville Independent School District schools and graduated from H.M. King High School.

While on the staff of the Kingsville Record, Burzynski concurrently served in the Navy Reserve. As the lone Reservist on staff, her colleagues at the newspaper weren’t quite sure what being a Reservist meant, until Sept. 11, 2001 happened and shortly thereafter, the President was calling up Reservists to serve on active duty.

She initially joined the Kingsville Record staff as an intern while she was completing her senior year at Texas A&M University-Kingsville as a communications major. She was happy to be offered a permanent position upon graduation in 1998. “The terrific thing about being at a small community newspaper is that you get to do everything,” Burzynski said, adding, “Working at the Kingsville Record enabled me to meet and get to know Kingsville’s community leaders and active residents who cared about the community.”

Upon earning her bachelor’s degree in 1998, Burzynski applied for a commission as a Reserve Public Affairs Officer. She recalls receiving the call from the officer recruiter in Houston, informing her of her selection for the appointment. “I was really busy copy editing when the call came, and I stood up while being given the exciting news and I remember my heart starting to race,” Burzynski said. Receiving the officer commission meant that she would no longer be an enlisted sailor and be afforded much more opportunity and responsibility.

When Cmdr. Burzynski joined the military 43 years ago, the Navy looked quite different than it does today—a lot more than the look of the uniform has changed. At Recruit Training Command in Orlando, Florida in 1978, she wore a uniform no one would recognize now. Her “uniform of the day” consisted of side-zip black slacks and a short-sleeve light blue blouse with small white buttons. At this time women in the Navy were referred to as WAVES: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

The WAVES branch of the Navy, which was created on July 30, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Navy Women’s Reserves Act, sought to bring women into the Navy to free up male personnel for sea duty. When Burzynski enlisted 36 years later, women still made up only a small percentage of the Navy with even fewer advancing to leadership positions. Burzynski would go on to change this statistic by not only continuing her naval service, but also by advancing in rank and eventually retiring with the rank of commander.

Uninformed, youthful decision to join

Yet, reflecting on her early days of service, Burzynski admits to joining the Navy after briefly exploring life in Southern California – far away from her family on the East Coast -- without a plan or a clear understanding of what it meant to be a sailor.

“My father was a public affairs officer in the Air Force, so I thought I knew what military service entailed,” Burzynski said, laughing lovingly at her younger self. “I was 18 so I thought I was all grown up, but I was quite naive.”

“I signed up without telling anyone in my family, so I missed out on my dad’s guidance” said Burzynski. “I knew I wanted to be a photographer or journalist, but there were no openings at that time. But then the recruiter told me that I could sign a contract for a different school and when I got to boot camp I could tell them what I really wanted. I believed him.”

Instead, following basic training, Burzynski was to report for training as a mineman.

As a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native, Burzynski’s initial assumption was that being a mineman had something to do with coal mines. As the seventh woman to attend mineman training, Burzynski learned how to assemble, test and maintain underwater explosive devices.

Though not assigned in her preferred career field, Burzynski decided to make the best of her position and learn as much as possible about the duties of a mineman.

“I had an instructor in mineman school who would end each class by asking if anyone had any questions,” said Burzynski. “He’d block his view of me with his hand because he knew my hand would be raised. I found mines and electronics fascinating and I always made our class run long with my questions. I bet my classmates hated it, but I didn’t care -- I wanted to know everything.”

Entering the Navy at the lowest rank of E1, a seaman recruit, Burzynski rose quickly to E5, a petty officer second class, in three and a half years.

Harsh working conditions

While the training environment was professional, the work environment was not welcoming to women. Back then even the dungaree uniforms came only in sizes tailored for men. “The 70’s and 80’s were not particularly friendly towards women in the Navy, especially in male-dominated careers,” Burzynski said, adding, “It was not uncommon for my senior leadership to publicly disparage our service in front of the entire crew, saying we had no business being there.”

The Navy has learned much about implementing change since those days. As the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military was about to be repealed in 2011, Burzynski said she, along with every sailor in the Navy, participated in small group discussions to talk about what this meant and how the Navy was going to function with gays not needing to hide who they were. “We discussed realistic scenarios and considered how to ensure people were treated fairly and respectfully,” Burzynski said, “Sitting in that room with that small group, I reflected briefly on my memories as a young mineman, and I recalled thinking to myself ‘the Navy sure has come a long way.’”

When her first daughter was born, however, she decided to take a break from service and focus on family. Four years, and two more daughters later, Burzynski returned to the Navy as a Reservist, still as a mineman, but determined to transition to photographer. For months, she spent Fridays at the nearby Fleet Imaging Center, fulfilling all the requirements to qualify as a Navy photographer. No openings for photographer were available, however, eventually she was able to cross rate to journalist, which included photography opportunities.

Transfer out of mine field

Prior to the official change to Navy Journalist, though, she had one last hurrah as a mineman, conducting two weeks of Reserve annual training at a mine shop near Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

“The last time I served as a minemen was in the 90’s at a mine shop with a crew that was about 50/50 men and women. There were no issues or comments like those I’d experienced. They worked side-by-side, just like regular shipmates,” Burzynski said. “It was heartwarming for this to be my last interaction with the minemen community – to see how far they’d come. None of them knew of my experiences in the 70s and none of them needed to know.”

Using her Montgomery G.I. Bill to earn her degree at TAMUK, Burzynski joined the staff of the university’s newspaper, The South Texan, first as a photographer, eventually working her way up to editor. Upon graduation in 1998 she continued to work at The Kingsville Record, then moved on as the editor of The Flying K, Naval Air Station Kingsville’s newspaper.

Recall to active duty

As a Reservist, Burzynski was recalled to active duty in 2004 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. Enjoying the thrill and challenges as a full-time public affairs officer coordinating media trips to the Middle East, Burzynski applied and was accepted to be permanently assigned to active duty in 2007. Up until this time, she had not spent much time at sea and had a strong desire to do so. Since then, she has served tours on two aircraft carriers, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68).

In addition to her sea-going tours, Burzynski’s favorite assignments included traveling to Latvia to support the SeaBees with Cornerstone ’99 and a medical mass casualty drill, MEDCEUR ’99, and to McMurdo Station in Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze in 2007.

Final tour in community news

Burzynski’s naval tour concluded in Millington, Tennessee, where she sat at the helm of NAVCO. In this role, she oversaw an office dedicated to connecting Americans with their Navy. With most of the Navy's personnel and equipment logically concentrated on America's coasts, NAVCO oversees a number of community outreach programs designed to bring America's Navy to cities and towns throughout the country that do not enjoy a significant Navy presence.

After completing high-stress assignments involving crisis communication, she was happy the final tour of her naval career dealt with community outreach and garnering publicity and positive news stories about our sailors to their communities.

“With my background as a civilian journalist, I knew the importance of NAVCO’s work,” Burzynski said. “Sending stories and images of sailors to their hometown media is terrific for the community and the sailors’ families are so proud to see their sailors recognized. Good news doesn’t always get covered because it’s not catchy or clickbait. But if the good news is about you or someone you know, you care. That’s why the NAVCO mission works.”

Like many others, Burzynski’s year was uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of her final tour in the Navy was spent from the comfort of her downtown Memphis apartment, where she led NAVCO primarily through video calls. Still, it was fulfilling.

“While teleworking during the pandemic, I knew I needed to make an extra effort to keep everyone at the command informed and connected. Participating in daily COVID-19 phone calls with our office at the Pentagon, I started sending out a daily update with relevant info and including a daily photo to the staff. The photo effort blossomed into the staff sending their photos of pets, new car purchases, home renovation projects to be shared in the daily update.” she said. “We got to know each other better because we were eager to feel connected. Working from home also made the transition to retirement easier after having spent so many years on the go. Instead of just visiting my apartment, I’ve had the chance to enjoy my apartment.”

It was on the rooftop of that apartment building where family and friends as well as NAVCO’s sailors and civilians gathered to celebrate Burzynski’s retirement. A family affair, the ceremony was emceed by son-in-law Army 2nd Lt. Nicholas Bunch, Tedi’s husband, who added friendly military rivalry and levity, on a beautifully warm and breezy June evening as the sunset over the Mississippi River. Tasha, who was unable to attend in person, recorded the National Anthem for the ceremony, but technical difficulties arose, so Tedi stepped in and sang it a cappella. Both Tedi and Tina shared touching memories, as well as the inspiration and impact their mother’s career has had on them.

The ceremony celebrating Burzynski’s retirement occurred on June 24, 2021.

The event could be summarized in the statement that echoed through the crowd over the course of the evening: It is impossible to explain Burzynski’s accomplishments and her impact on those she has served with. There isn’t enough time; there aren’t enough words.