BELLEAIR BLUFFS – When Ernest Burzumato heard that a roadside bombing on April 30 and a rocket attack two days later had killed seven and wounded 37 Seabees of the 14th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion in Iraq, he felt the same sadness and anger that other Americans felt. But he also felt a huge pang of survivor’s guilt.
“They’re my people; I should have been with them,” said Burzumato, who spent 25 years with the Jacksonville-based unit before retiring five years ago. “Some of the walking wounded from the first incident got hit again in the second incident. They were awarded two purple hearts.”
Brooklyn-born Burzumato, 65, dropped out of high school in 1955 and followed his brother, Carmine, into the Marine Corps. He participated in the 1956 evacuation of the Suez Canal and went to Vietnam in 1961, when there were just a handful of American advisers in the former French colony.
“It was a whole different ballgame back then,” he said. “The beautiful, tranquil little villages we saw were the same ones that gave us trouble later.”
After getting out of the Marines, he went into the construction trades and moved to Florida. In 1972, friends persuaded him to join the Seabee reserves as an enlisted man.
“I’m a mustang,” Burzumato said. “I went through the ranks.”
From the enlisted ranks, he was promoted to warrant office and, later, to commissioned officer, retiring as a lieutenant commander. On the day he was promoted to warrant officer, he swore his oldest son, Skippy, into the Navy.
As an expert in logistics and mobilization, he provided support for the American military missions in Bosnia and Somalia, as well as the humanitarian efforts in Rwanda and in south Florida after Hurricane Andrew. He was mobilized for 13 months during Desert Storm. Along the way, he picked up four Navy Commendation Medals, five Navy Achievement Medals and a Meritorious Service Medal.
The unit, which covers all of Florida, southeast Georgia and Puerto Rico, is called the “Pride of Dixie.” Burzumato calls the battalion’s 650 reserve Seabees, 24 reserve officers, five active-duty members and one Marine adviser his “kids.”
But he is equally proud of his five biological children. Skippy, the young recruit he swore into the Navy, is now an ordained Episcopal priest. Jimmy is a master sergeant with the Air Force in Alaska. Andrew is a West Point graduate who flew Army helicopters before getting his MBA and becoming an investment adviser in Boston. Michael is a Hernando County deputy sheriff who was honored for saving a man from a burning truck. And daughter Elena is a paralegal in New Port Richey.
After hanging up his Navy uniform, Burzumato went into real estate. After working for another local real estate firm, he opened his own business, Nations Real Estate, at 232 N. Indian Rocks Road in March. But his “kids” in uniform still hold a warm spot in his heart.
“I’m just a retired old Seabee keeping in touch with my people,” he said. “When they called up the reserves for Iraq, I got involved again in an unofficial way.”
Burzumato raises money for the families of Seabees that have been killed or wounded. And, although all his clients receive top-notch service, he bends over backwards to help veterans by doing such things as giving them discounts on their title insurance.