Story last updated at 8:37 PM on Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Husband, wife Marines retire, return to Alaska

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

If you've grown up on an Alaska homestead, where -- along with a slew of siblings -- you carried water, kept the fire going and raised food for the family, joining the United States Marine Corps seems like a logical step.

Then, at the end of a 31-year military career, with the rank of colonel, a fistful of medals, memories of fascinating assignments, a husband who also is a colonel and a family the two of you raised together, coming back to where it all began -- Alaska -- seems equally logical.

That's exactly what Catkin Kilcher Burton is doing.


Photo provided

Cols. Tom and Katkin Burton say good-bye to their service in the U.S. Marine Corps at retirement ceremonies at Marine Corps Base, Kaneohi, Hawaii, in June

Burton, who was born in Switzerland and came to this country with her parents, Yule and Ruth Kilcher, and her husband, Clyde T. "Tom" Burton, originally of Oklahoma, left their Marine years behind them at a joint retirement ceremony at Marine Corps Base, Kaneohi, Hawaii, June 9. They are currently settling into civilian life in Anchorage while maintaining their ties to the family homestead in Homer.

"What made me join the Marines was partly the influence of my upbringing in Alaska," said Burton, adding she also was influenced by her stepfather Rod Mariott, a former Marine; her father Yule Kilcher; and her brother Atz Kilcher, who served in Vietnam.

Although her decision made her father "flip out" for a while, "when he thought about it, it made sense because a lot of Swiss values of working together and teamwork are what the Marines are about," Burton said.

The Marines also fit with Burton's need for new challenges.

"I'd worked my way through college and wanted to travel and see the world," she said of an initial three-year commitment to the Marines. Following her service, Burton planned to return to Alaska.

That was in 1978.

"It's been a long three years," Burton told the Homer News, laughing.

For her, the Marines offered a "tough and fraternal, but not unfriendly" environment.

"I was always judged based on my performance and what I did," she said. "Coming from an Alaskan family of six girls and two boys, that's the kind of treatment I was used to and what I expected."

Burton's first duty assignment was in Okinawa, Japan. From there, she served in South Carolina, California, Hawaii, Japan and Thailand, transferring to Quantico, Va., as Commanding Officer of HQ Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion in 1994. Promotions and assignments continued, with Burton's promotion to colonel in 2001.

"Out of 697 colonels in the Marine Corps, 20 are female," Burton said, adding that the number has grown slightly since 2001 due to the Marines' increase in the ranks from 178,000 to 202,000.

At the time of her retirement, Burton was serving with the Marine Corps Forces Pacific. She has two masters degrees and her personal decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.

Tom Burton was born at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where his father was serving at the time. During his childhood, he traveled as his father's assignments changed, living in the Philippines, New York and Arizona.

In 1976, Tom Burton enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served aboard the USS Sunfish, a fast-attack submarine. In 1979, he was discharged from the Navy and, in 1983, enlisted in the Marines.

As a Marine, Tom Burton's duty assignments included Hawaii, Missouri, Virginia and Japan. In 2008, he volunteered for duty in Iraq during Operation Enduring Freedom and was designated as the Commander, Forward Operating Base Bucca, Iraq.

At the time of his retirement, Tom Burton was serving as the Director for MCI, MidPac. He has a masters degree and his personal decorations and citations include the Southeast Asia Service Medal, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia Liberation medals, Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, and the Legion of Merit. He received a Bronze Star Medal for his service as commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The couple met and married in Okinawa. Tom Burton was at the airport to pick up a friend. Unbeknownst to him, the friend had been sitting on the plane next to Burton and suggested the two get together.

"She walked by me, noticed me, asked my friend for my phone number and called me," he said, adding with a laugh, "She was very determined and aggressive and I feel fortunate she picked me out of the herd like that."

Tom Burton soon got a taste of what it meant to be married to an Alaskan and a Kilcher.

"When I married Catkin, I can't say I knew what I was getting into, but I hooked up to a dynamo. She's an incredible woman to be married to, so when I met her family, I knew they were strong people," he said.

The couple have three children. Daughter Ecatrina, 23, recently married in a ceremony at Quantico, followed by a reception on the Kilcher homestead and is beginning a new job in San Francisco. Son Anthony, 20, is attending college in Hawaii. Son Edwin, 13, is living with the Burtons in Anchorage.

Motivating Burton's return to Alaska is a desire to give back what Alaska taught her that has served her well: persistence, determination and working with others. The couple also is looking for avenues to share what they learned in the Marines and are eager to finally have time together and with their Alaska family.

"I haven't had any doubts about joining (Catkin) here. Clearly, she's homegrown and I'll be learning a lot from her," Tom Burton said. "We've had enough separation over the course of our careers."

For Burton, it is finally time to come home.

"I'm very happy to be back in Alaska after these many long years," she said. "My heart's always been in Alaska. That's where my roots and family have been."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at