While Gracie Burgess was only 9 years old when her father, Daniel Burgess, was critically injured while serving his country in the Middle East, she remembers the day vividly.
“My mom, my sister, and I had just come home from Sam’s Club and were unloading the van when Mom got the phone call,” Gracie said. “She dropped to her knees and was bawling – I remember exactly where I was standing, and where she had been standing.”
“’Something happened to Daddy,’” Gracie remembers her mom saying.
What happened next was a journey for the entire Burgess family that would include several moves, much resiliency and the development of a podcast taken from Gracie’s experiences, “Grace of a Military Child.”
April is Month of the Military Child; enjoy Gracie’s story about the strength of her family and of military children.
Daniel served with the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2000, and with the Army Reserve from 2000 to 2003 before he had a break in service from 2004 to 2010. He then re-joined the Army Reserve in 2010.
“I was only a year old when he got out,” Gracie said, adding that she grew up in a civilian household. “I grew up in the same house, in the same city and didn’t move for nine years. When I was 8, he rejoined the military.”
Daniel deployed with the Army Reserve in August 2011 and by November, he was injured. Daniel has stepped on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The explosion not only resulted in his right leg being amputated below the knee, but he also sustained significant damage and multiple fractures to his right hand and fingers, a traumatic brain injury, complete degloving on the inside of his left leg requiring multiple skin grafts, damage to his left foot and ankle, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress.
When Gracie’s mom, Genette, received the phone call about Daniel’s injury, she handed her cell phone to Gracie and told her to call her best friend to alert her that Daniel had been wounded. Genette’s best friend was a member of the unit, and she would inform the others about the accident and know what to do next.
Gracie informed the unit of the devastating news – though she didn’t exactly know the extent of his injuries. She heard the word “amputee,” but it didn’t register at the time.
“I told my sister it was going to be OK,” Gracie said. “Then we packed everything into laundry baskets and went to stay with a family friend.”
It was four days later Gracie and her younger sister, Kaylee, saw their mom again; it was Thanksgiving Day 2011.
“She had been trying to figure out how to tell us that Dad had lost a leg,” Gracie said.
The family had just seen “Dolphin Tale” about Winter, a dolphin that loses her tail and needs a prosthetic.
“Mom was on the phone with dad, and he said, ‘If a dolphin can do it, I can do it.’”
While Genette traveled to Texas to be with Daniel, the girls stayed in Ohio with her best friend who was the fiancée of a soldier who had been deployed with Daniel.
“The unit made sure my sister and I were taken care of,” Gracie said.
It was about a month before Gracie finally got to see her father. A self-described daddy’s girl, Daniel and Gracie’s bond goes back to when she was in the womb: “My mom said I was a very active baby. When he was around, I was even more active.”
“I didn’t say my first word or take my first steps until he was around,” Gracie added.
She and her sister flew to Texas on Dec. 22 to see their dad and braced themselves for what would become their new normal.
“The last time I saw my dad, he was getting in a car to drive to Fort Dix to deploy,” she said. “He was coming back all banged up, he had lost a lot of weight and he was hurt. It was a whole new world I was walking into.”
Yet Gracie knew she had to be strong.
“I had to mature at 9 years old in a way that most kids at 9 years old don’t have to do,” she said.
Not only were she and her sister visiting Daniel, but they were picking up and moving to Texas. It was Christmas break, and they spent all day, every day with him in his hospital room.
“We made it fun,” she said, adding that someone from her dad’s unit bought her and her sister a Nintendo 3DS and for Christmas they both got Kindle Fires.
When break ended, the girls attended the school on the military installation. The transition wasn’t difficult, she said, because it’s common for students to come and go at such schools.
Gracie, Kaylee and their mom stayed at a hotel on base when they weren’t at the hospital. On school days, a bus would pick up the girls at 6:45 a.m. at the hotel and bring them to school. After school the bus would bring them back to the hotel and from there, they’d go straight to the hospital where’d they’d do their homework before heading back to the hotel to sleep for the night.
“It was like hitting a repeat button every day,” Gracie said.
However, she credits her mother for keeping a consistent schedule for the girls.
“It calmed my anxiety and helped the transition,” Gracie said.
Daniel spent two months in the hospital and over a year and a half recovering before he medically retired and the family moved to Florida, where they live now.
Gracie said she tried to be a rock for her younger sister throughout the family’s recovery journey. She also said it was difficult when her family transitioned out of the military life.
“It was hard to move to a new area where no one understood the military life and what my family was going through or had been through.” Gracie said.
When Gracie was 15, she and her family attended the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat for the first time.
“We came in the winter, and it was the first time we had seen snow since we left Ohio,” she said. “It was fun to just play in the snow again.”
Their next visit to the retreat was the following year in August.
“I loved being out on the lake and paddle boarding,” she said.
Now 20 years old, Gracie is a student at Florida Gulf Coast University where she studies health sciences and marketing. She plans to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Alabama starting in summer 2023 where she’ll focus on marketing with a concentration in digital and social media.
In 2021 she developed a podcast, “Grace of a Military Child,” where she focuses on military children, their experiences and how they’re different.
“They’re resilient,” Gracie said of military children. “BRAT can stand for a lot of things when you’re talking about military children, but I say it stands for: Bravery, Resiliency, Adaptation and Toughness.”
“You really don’t sign up for the military life as a child,” Gracie added. “It’s a decision your parents make but you just must support them. I believe it makes you more well-rounded.”
Gracie said there’s a special place in her heart when she meets veterans and other military families.
“I know the lifestyle a little more than civilians would know it; there’s a connection with other military children,” she said. “It’s like we’re all one big family.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first-ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth.