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Being a U.S. Navy admiral wasn’t even on Matthew J. Burns’ radar when he graduated from high school in the mid-1980s.
The New Jersey native tried college for a semester, but quickly realized he did not have either the study habits or self-discipline to succeed, so he turned to the military with the help of his brother, who was already an enlisted Navy SEAL.
In the past 32 years, Burns has gone from being a Navy recruit to Navy SEAL, rising to first class petty officer, to making the jump to the wardroom in 1995.
This year, he pinned on a rear admiral's star, making him the first Sailor commissioned through the current Seaman to Admiral Program to do so. His promotion fulfilled the promise of the program's name -- and the dreams of former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Boorda.
Boorda himself rose from the deckplates to the wardroom. He was also a first class petty officer before being picked up for a similar commissioning program in the 1960s, rising to the rank of full admiral and the Navy's top uniformed billet.
"The Navy rewards performance. If you aspire to advance in the Navy, sustained performance is the key," Burns said in an interview with MyNavy HR.
"Take advantage of all of the education and professional development opportunities you get. They will benefit your Navy career and beyond."
Burns enlisted in the Navy on April 20, 1988 and headed to San Diego for boot camp. Following that, he attended quartermaster 'A' school in Orlando, Fla. His real goal was to be a Navy SEAL, but in the days prior to the establishment of the Special Warfare Operator rating, all enlisted SEALs came from fleet source ratings they qualified in first.
Even here, Burns found value in his QM training that would help him later in special warfare.
"I actually learned some good crossover skills,” he said. "In QM “A” school, the navigation training was specifically helpful and learning how tides, currents and winds affect a vessel’s course and speed apply to all sizes of craft, to include those used in [Naval Special Warfare].”
By late 1989, Burns had qualified as a SEAL and was part of a SEAL team. Two years later, the Navy and the nation found themselves facing war for the first time in nearly two decades. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and Desert Storm had begun.
"I was pretty young, and my geopolitical awareness was not exactly honed, so Iraq and Kuwait were not on my radar until the growing conflict started heating up and making the news in the summer of 1990," he said.
"I was excited to be operationally employed for the nation, but it definitely opened my eyes to the risk and danger inherent in wars -- I also saw sheer bravery firsthand for the first time in my life."
Burns related a story of a young Navy EOD LT in PT gear "jump off the side of a foreign vessel we were operating off of, in order to physically get between the ship and a contact mine that was floating towards us."
"He was sleeping when he was notified and ran straight out from his berthing space and dove in, no forethought to the danger -- it is still an inspiring memory."
Burns said he was happy being an enlisted SEAL. He'd found a trade and a career he enjoyed and was focused on honing the skills necessary to succeed in his chosen career. He'd advanced to first class petty officer but didn't think that college courses were an option for him given his deployment schedule in the days before online education.
Becoming an officer was still not on Burns' radar.
"I didn’t really give it much thought for the majority of the time I was enlisted," he said. "I was focused on learning my trade and become the best tactical practitioner I could -- I was not aware of any commissioning programs that fit the frequent travel and OPTEMPO of an operational SEAL and the community did not, at that time, have any limited duty officers."
But a Mustang admiral’s dream and his Seaman to Admiral Program changed all that.
"I heard about the program from a mentor of mine, a SEAL LT who I had served with in multiple commands," Burns recalled. "He brought me the Navy message that announced the start of a new program by then [Chief of Naval Operations] Adm. [Mike] Boorda, called the Seaman to Admiral Program."
The program is now known as Seaman to Admiral - 21 or STA-21 for short and was "loosely modeled after the commissioning program he did in the 1960s called the Integration Program," Burns said.
"When first rolled out, the STA Program was specifically oriented towards affording a commissioning opportunity to sailors without any college," Burns said.
"Also, during the first couple of years, the program was designed to send candidates to OCS then straight back out to Warfare Qualification and a Fleet tour."
Degree completion, he said, came later.
"In the case of the early NSW candidates, we went straight back to NSW operational units which made the program very attractive to me,” he said.
What also appealed to him was a shot at leadership opportunities that would not come in the NSW community until he made chief petty officer.
"The ability to get a commission and a leadership opportunity earlier, as well as the increased future opportunities to contribute to the NSW community really interested me,” he said.
Burns applied and was accepted in 1995, though his new opportunity brought a mix of reactions from his fellow-enlisted teammates.
"Most were supportive, a few thought I was crazy to 'give up the operator’s life for paperwork and having to learn how to use a computer,' a phrase that now sounds both strange and funny in 2020," he said.
Nearly seven years to the day from when he entered boot camp in April of 1988, Burns found himself in Pensacola, Fla. starting Officer Candidate School. When his class graduated in July of 1995, Adm. Boorda was on hand to congratulate the graduates.
By July 1995, Burns was back in the teams as a young ensign and received some unique advice on how to balance his enlisted experience as he took on his new responsibilities as a SEAL officer.
"I got great advice from a very wise senior chief when I reported to my command as an ensign," Burns said. "He told me not to use my enlisted experience to show the enlisted SEALs what a great subject matter expert I was as an ensign -- instead, he told me to orient that experience towards bolstering my confidence in them and informing my advocacy for them.”
"That simple but powerful philosophical view on leadership stays with me to this day -- empowered people who know they have the trust and confidence of their leaders are more productive and have higher morale,” he said.
After his 2-year tour, he was off to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. to get his college degree.
"There were five SEALs ready to go to college under the STA program, as we had finished our first operational tour," he said. "The rest of the STA cohort had to attend either Surface Warfare or Flight Training after OCS, so they were a year or more behind us in finishing their Fleet tours."
The Navy had not yet solidified the STA education pathway, which has since ended up not being an education first program held at Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps universities.
"I ended up in Monterey at the Naval Postgraduate School for three years," he said. "Three years in a bachelor’s program as a junior officer was potentially a “dead zone” in our career, which may not have been favorably viewed by future selection and promotion boards."
To fix this, the NPS staff offered Burns and his classmates the chance to accelerate their undergraduate studies and work towards a master’s degree, too.
"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to earn two degrees in three years," he said, noting that it required some tough work.
"There were some academic quarters during that three years that I had in excess of 26 hours of classes along with all of the reading and homework, but it was worth it in the end,” he said.
As a SEAL officer, Burns said his favorite tours have been "anything associated with tactical operations or training."
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, he also enjoyed his time working in Navy personnel as the OPNAV N13 Naval Special Warfare Officer Community Manager.
"I learned a lot about accession, promotion, retention, as well as force shaping planning," he said. "I think it is really important to fully learn your trade in the Navy, to include personnel, human resources and resourcing."
Naval Special warfare, he said, is built on the principal that the human being is the primary weapons platform.
"So, HR has an outsize influence on our effectiveness as a community," he said.
"Operations-centric decision making, uninformed by HR and resourcing considerations rarely pan out well,” he said. “So, I decided if I was going to stay in the Navy and compete for senior NSW positions, I wanted to be well rounded."
For most of his officer career, becoming an admiral was "not on my radar as a possibility until I was in major command”, he said. However, he does have a sense of accomplishment now that he's attained it.
"I’m proud - proud to be associated with the Navy, the NSW Community and the Joint Special Operations Community," he said. "It’s given me opportunities and rewards that were beyond my imagination before I enlisted. I’ve met great people and lifelong friends in the Navy and other services, and it’s primarily people who motivate me to continue to serve.”
What has kept him going in the Navy as a Sailor and a SEAL goes back his brother's sales pitch in getting him to join in the first place.
"When explaining why I should join the Navy, my brother associated being on a SEAL Team with being on a sports team," he said. "That resonates with me to this day, the singular purpose and shared vision."
So, with this milestone now in his slipstream, what's next for Burns?
"It’s all about service at this point, and where the Navy thinks I can be useful and effective," he said. "I’m happy I still get to put the uniform on every day."
More information on the Seaman to Admiral-21 program is available at https://www.netc.navy.mil/Commands/Naval-Service-Training-Command/STA-21/
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