Helping service members and veterans transition back to civilian life can be difficult, but Dr. Lem Burnham enjoys the challenge. The psychology professor spends a lot of time working with military students, who he has in just about every class.
Burnham is well-equipped to understand their struggles. After all, the 69-year-old is a Vietnam vet, a retired pro football player and a black man who lived through the Civil Rights movement.
If you’ve ever heard the motto “Life is what you make of it,” know that Burnham is a pretty stellar example of that.
Early Life, a Missing Piece
Burnham was one of eight kids raised in post-World War II Florida by a mother who did the majority of the heavy lifting. His dad left when he was about 6 years old, so he never had a real father figure to mentor him. The military gave him that.
Burnham stepped foot on Parris Island for boot camp more than 50 years ago, but he remembers it like it was yesterday, from being chased off his Greyhound bus by the drill instructor to graduation on the parade deck. He said he quickly jumped at the opportunity to be a squad leader.“I knew there would be an opportunity for me to learn and develop some life skills that I knew I needed to be successful that I had not had the opportunity to develop at home,” Burnham said.
“That was one of the most amazing experiences I’d had in my entire life, because I was in a leadership role, which I had never been in,” he said.
The experience taught him dedication, how to work with and mentor others, and how to take responsibility for his actions.
“When I got my first stripe, I thought that was a really big deal. That represented progress,” he said.
Burnham served from 1965 to 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, and spent 13 months in the war zone as part of the 3rd Marine Division.
College and the NFL
After the war, Burnham earned a degree in psychology.
“That was the first course that I took that I fell in love with,” he said.
Burnham graduated in 1974 and, thanks to his football talents, decided to be a pro athlete. In 1977, he became a defensive end for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, leading the team in sacks that year. He said his ability to compete had a lot to do with his experience as a Marine, and that success got him to the pro level, too.
“I was competing with guys coming from … all of the major schools. In training camp, I beat them. I emerged as a guy that made the team, and a lot of those guys were sent home,” he said.
As an NFL rookie, Burnham said he was often asked which was tougher: pro football or the Marines.
“My response always was, ‘It’s no contest. The NFL is a piece of cake compared to the Marine Corps.’”
Football might have taken up a lot of Burnham’s time then, but not his focus. While he was playing, he earned his Master of Science in counseling psychology, and he also began working on his doctorate. When he retired from football in 1981, those studies quickly became his full focus.
His work within the NFL didn’t stop there, though. He spent a decade working as the team psychologist for the Eagles, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, and he’s considered the “mastermind” behind the NFL Rookie Symposium.
Helping Others in Academia
Nowadays, Burnham teaches psychology students at Wilmington University in Delaware. A lot of his pupils are veterans and current service members (the school even has a campus at Dover Air Force Base).
“I know some of them have struggles sometimes while they’re in the transition, so every opportunity I get, I try to encourage them to be positive … and have a vision about what they want to do with their lives once they earn their degree,” he said.Burnham likes to work with those men and women. Being a veteran himself, he’s aware there’s still a disconnect with the general public on the sacrifices they have made, so he understands their needs better than most.
To most of Burnham’s students, he’s just another instructor — few of them know of his prior life experiences. But when you sit down with him, it’s pretty clear that the basis of his life can be directly attributed to the military.
“I hate to even think about what my life would have been if I hadn’t gone into the Marine Corps,” he said.
As for his advice to the younger generation who might be struggling with adversity?
“Read. Study. Do your research. Think for yourself and make critical decisions about your life and your future. Don’t wait for someone else to do it,” he said.