There was a time when Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Don Burdette and his family struggled from paycheck to paycheck in order to pay their bills. Now, those struggles are gone.
Burdette, a 23-year-old Sailor aboard San Diego-based aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), won the California Lottery Jan. 14 and split a $13 million dollar jackpot with one other Californian.
"We both decided to take the lump sum up front instead of in payments," said Burdette. "After splitting the money and taxes were deducted, my family and I received about $3 million."
With a wife and 16-month-old twin daughters, Burdette believes it was a blessing from his father who passed away when Burdette was 16. A California native, Burdette was born and raised in Spring Valley, and became the first in California Lotto history to win there.
"I was on duty the Wednesday the numbers came out," explained Burdette. "My wife was in the emergency room with my daughter Mackenzie who was running a 103 degree temperature, but my chain of command let me go check on her. I didn't know it, but at that time I had the winning ticket in my pocket."
It wasn't until the next afternoon that Burdette would find out that he won.
"My father-in-law called me up when my wife and I were in the middle of a fight over money," said Burdette. "He said the winning lotto ticket had come from Spring Valley and that he had a good feeling it was me."
Burdette and his wife Jennifer postponed the argument while Burdette went down to the local liquor store where he had been purchasing lotto tickets every Wednesday and Saturday for the past three months. He walked into the store where he saw the clerk putting up signs saying the winning lotto ticket had been sold there.
"I asked him who won, and he said he didn't know yet and to check my ticket," said Burdette. "When I realized I won, I just started yelling and so did he. We were both freaking out. He wanted me to stand behind the counter just to be safe, and when I tried to sign the ticket, I had to hold my own hand straight I was shaking so bad."
Burdette called and told his wife, who needed a little convincing. "The first thing she said was, 'you're lying,' but she was excitedly saying it. I told her no, I'm not lying. I won every single number. I won the jackpot, and she just started screaming."
For the family, winning the jackpot means never having to be apart. According to Burdette, he has only been around for a quarter of his daughters' lives so far, the first thing he thought when he won was, "I'll never have to leave home again."
"I missed most of my wife's pregnancy because I was in boot camp and school," said Burdette. "Then a month and a half after Madison and Mackenzie were born, I left on an eight-month deployment to the Persian Gulf with (USS) Constellation (CV 64). A month after returning home from that deployment, I was sent to "A" school for another four-and-a-half months."
But Burdette was willing to do whatever it took to provide for his daughters.
"This has added strength to our family," said Jennifer. "This money will become part of our foundation. I've always said a strong family is the foundation of everything, and we had a strong family, but you can't help but break down and fight when it comes to bills and not having enough money. Now, we have those support beams."
Before the Burdettes won the lottery, it was Jennifer's parents who helped the couple most. As a new mother of twins who was also working a part-time job, Jennifer relied a great deal on her family while her husband was away.
"They helped us with everything, from giving us a place to live, to helping us out with money whenever we needed it," Jennifer said. "It all came down to making sure the girls had what they needed."
As a way of saying thank you, Burdette plans to pay off his in-laws' house. "It's the least we could do," said Burdette.
Burdette will be released from the military with an honorable discharge and will be able to spend quality time with his family.
"I don't regret joining the Navy," said Burdette. "If it wasn't for the Navy, I wouldn't have the strong foundation I have now. I wouldn't have been able to pay off my debts. I wouldn't have gotten back on my feet. I learned financial responsibility that will help me spend the money more wisely. Up until this point, the Navy has helped me support my family."
Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Robert Herrera, one of Burdette's supervisors from Constellation who also transferred to Nimitz, has known the Sailor for over a year.
"I'm really happy for him, he deserves it," said Herrera. "Airman Burdette is the kind of guy who'll be there for you, on or off the job. As long as I've known him, I've never heard him complain. He was always about getting the job done and making his family proud."
According to Burdette, the relationships he has built are what he'll miss most about the military. "I'm kind of sad leaving the Navy, because I have a lot of boys there, some real friends that had my back," he said. "My Navy friends were my real friends, but at least now, they know where I'm going to be."
The Burdettes have purchased two vehicles so far, and plan to buy a home and remain in the San Diego area. They also plan to put money away for their daughters for college, and contribute some to charity.
More than money though, Burdette said he wished he could share the moment he found out he won. "It was the most incredible feeling that you could ever feel," he explained. "Just that one feeling that day when every single number matched, I wish I could give that to somebody else."