When Casey Burns’ high school buddy, said, “let’s join the Marines,” Burns had no idea that decision would send him halfway around the world and launch a stint as a sumo wrestler.
Born and raised in Rigby, the 1988 Rigby High School graduate headed to San Diego just two days after graduation.
“It was a challenge,” he said.
The first nine months to a year was split between boot camp and training in San Diego and North Carolina. Burns became a Lance Corporal with a job as combat engineer. He also did explosive ordnance disposal for six months.
After training, it was off to Japan.
“It’s such a beautiful culture and environment. It’s different, but it’s really nice,” he said. “I visited Peace Park where they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. It brings things to life.”
A typical day in the life of a Marine for Burns started at 5:00 a.m. with a three to five mile run and a strenuous physical fitness routine. Then off to work, which for his job as combat engineer was carpentry and to build whatever needed building. After work at 16:30, they played football, went to the gym, and shot pool.
On weekends they attended Cherry Blossom festivals, bicycled, and jumped off bridges to swim in the rivers below.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
Although stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, about 45 minutes from Hiroshima, they were deployed all over the Far East.
“Which was really, really cool,” Burns said. “Japan was high-tech and fast, fast, fast. In Korea, the main cities were normal, but the country was like third world, dirty and gross. It was real interesting. I sure appreciate what we have here in America. Today’s generation has no idea what we’re blessed with.”
While in Japan, his shop built a baseball diamond and field for the local children, which was fun and very appreciated. They also would adopt an orphan for a day, he said. He remembers giving his adoptee his first taste of Dr. Pepper. One eye squinted and one eye bulged. “What is this?” the boy had asked.
They also had friendship days between the military and the town. They had a big celebration. Burns put together a team of ten for a tug-of-war competition.
“We won against all the other teams and locals. We beat everybody, so they said we weighed too much, so we sat two guys out. We won first place for Americans and third overall,” he said.
“That was also the first time I tried sumo wrestling,” he said. “I won.”
Years later, a friend got a hold of him about a sumo wrestling competition in Boise for a fundraiser. That got him back into sumo wrestling. In 2003, he won the title of North American Heavyweight Champion in Vancouver, Canada.
He continued in sumo wrestling. In 2006, he went on a tour across the U.S. It was a great experience with lots of memorable stories. He got to throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game in Arizona, as the Diamondbacks took on the Padres.
He got to sumo wrestle the Philadelphia mascot (and let him win), while 17,000 fans were chanting “Casey Burns.”
And while doing a photoshoot with Shawn Andrews, a tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, their coach at the time, Andy Reid, watched them sumo wrestling, and asked Burns, “Why aren’t you on my offensive line?’
“Because I’m a sumo wrestler. Also I’m a Cowboys fan,” Burns answered. “He is such a great guy — down-to-earth, warm and friendly. I’ve met Kidd Rock and others, it’s been really cool.”
Burns has another fun story about his time in Japan. While in Iwakuni, which is near a large body of water, like a bay, Burns and his crew were getting rid of mines and bombs.
“We strapped C-4 and dipped them 30 feet deep. We had 300 pounds of explosives,” he said. “When we detonated the explosives all these fish started floating to the top of the water. An Officer said, ‘Burns! Go get all those fish!’ And we had a big fish fry that night.”
At Hakai beach, he and fellow Marines would take their big laundry bags and fill them with clams. Then they would find little families who would cook the clams and they would share them.
“That was awesome,” he said. “Just so blessed.”
Burns tells another experience showing it pays to be from Idaho. While near Okinawa, the Marines did some jungle training. Burns’ leader was from Philadelphia
and the exercise was to ransack the enemy camp and then meet up with the rest of the unit. But they got lost.
“No radio. No nothing. We’re lost,” he said.
The leader had not been outside a city and didn’t have any ideas so Burns stepped forward. They first went to the highest ground. When that didn’t reveal their location, Burns pointed to the river and said they should follow that and it would lead them to roads and back to civilization. After following the river, they found a road and a bridge and then the rest of the company marched back and found them. When all was explained and Burns was identified as the hero, the major came over to him and asked how he knew what to do.
“I’m from Idaho,” he told him. “We get lost all the time while hunting.”
The major awarded him with a 96-hour pass.
After the Marines, Burns married and divorced, went to college, worked at the INL, and again got married for 17 years and divorced. He adopted a girl in 2012.
“She’s 20 years old now, and such a blessing,” Burns said. “My health got bad and I almost died. In February, I got back from the hospital and she begged me to get healthy.”
He switched healthcare to the veteran’s administration.
“They are absolutely awesome to work with,” he said. “I can’t say how happy I am. I encourage veterans to get a hold of the VA and they can help you. I’m doing better.”
He’s also grateful for the network of support here in southeast Idaho, with the all the diversity, and respect and tolerance.
“And that’s why this is home,” he said. “If any veteran is suffering from PTSD or others issues, do not be too proud to ask for help. There are resources available. The VA has been a great asset. No veteran should have to suffer alone.”
So what else did he learn in the military?
“It taught me self-confidence," Burns said. "It taught me failure is not an option. It taught me how much the greatest generation ever lived gave up so that I have the opportunities that I have. Our old veterans from World War II paid such a huge price and it is my honor to call them brothers and sisters.”