MAHOPAC, N.Y. - John Bourges has lived his life out loud.
The 61-year-old long-time Mahopac resident has been a New York City police detective, an ER nurse, a soldier and a coroner. Now, that eclectic resume has culminated with Bourges being named by the Carmel Town Board to join state Sen. Terrance Murphy’s 40th District 2017 Veterans Hall of Fame. Bourges received the honor during ceremonies held at the American Legion Hall Monday night (Nov. 20).
“I know there are a lot of other vets who are more deserving,” he said. “I run a vets’ outreach program and see them on a daily basis. I feel honored to get it though.”
Bourges joined the NYPD in 1981 after realizing he wasn’t cut out for the family business, a graphic arts material manufacturer. He said with the advent of computers, their products were becoming obsolete.
“The family business was just not a good fit for me,” he said. “Computers were taking hold and the business started to fail. It was never really my passion anyway. I didn’t have a business mind. It did teach me a few things to use later in life, but becoming a cop seemed like a good thing to do.”
So, Bourges went to the Police Academy and joined the force as a patrolman. He was later named to the Narcotics Division, where he spent three years before being promoted to detective in Washington Heights.
“When you join NYPD, they do a background check on you,” he recalled. “The investigator who did mine, as it turns out, had worked for my mother in the family business. I took that as a sign that becoming a cop was the right path.”
After 20 years on the force, Bourges retired in 2001 much to the relief of his wife, Phyllis, who is the deputy town clerk for Carmel.
“Where I worked was a very violent place; I knew people who were shot and killed,” he said. “I had been through riots; people shot at me. My wife was not really accepting of me staying there after 20 years.”
Still, Bourges wasn’t ready to hang up the “Gone Fishing” sign and commit to a life of leisure yet. He needed a new career. Ten days after he retired from NYPD, the Sept. 11 attacks took place, leaving him with some angst and survivor’s guilt. He decided to go back to school and become a registered nurse.
“There is always survivor’s remorse,” he said. “My team was actually down there that day and I know people who were killed. Not being there was a heavy burden to carry. You think you should have been doing something. It was something I did for 20 years and you can’t just turn around and just go, ‘Oh, well.”
While attending nursing school, Bourges worked at several other jobs “to support my pension,” he said.
He eventually got an associate’s degree in nursing from Westchester Community College in 2003 and landed a job at White Plains Hospital’s intensive care unit. He was about to leave White Plains to take a job at Putnam Hospital Center when a medical recruiter from the Army came to the hospital. Bourges was intrigued and decided to sign on. However, there was a glitch. The Army required nurses to have a school diploma that was accredited by the National League of Nursing. This degree from Westchester Community College did not supply that.
“Then one night, I was watching C-Span and saw the general who was in charge of Army Reserves, and he was talking about how it was difficult to find recruits for certain jobs—like nurses,” he said. “I wrote him a letter and complained about this archaic rule they had. Then I get a call from the Pentagon three or four months later. They tell me they read my letter and they’re going to change the policy.”
Bourges was in the Army soon enough. He was assigned to the Army Reserves in Connecticut—the 405th Combat Support Hospital. He entered service as a second lieutenant and would climb to the rank of captain before his honorable discharge.
“On the very first day, our commanding officer says we are being deployed to Iraq,” he said. “I had been in the Army about 15 minutes and we are already going to Iraq.”
Of course, he had to convince his wife it was a good idea.
“I told her, this is what I’ve been doing all my life,” he said. “I couldn’t say ‘no.’ She accepted it. Within a year, I was standing in the middle of Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was 2007; we were part of the surge.”
He served time in both Al Asad and Balad, where he was head nurse. In Balad, he was actually transferred to the Air Force—332nd Expeditionary Medical Unit. They were the only Level III trauma center in their area of operations and averaged more than 250 major trauma patients per month. They were right in the thick of the war.
“We got mortared about 60 times while I was there,” he said. “Balad was nicknamed ‘Mortaritaville.’ Some of the mortars were far away, some were pretty close. I remember lying there one day thinking, ‘What the hell was I thinking [joining the Army]?’”
Bourges was in Iraq for over a year before returning to the States and picking up his nursing career. This year, he earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Empire State College. He now works at the Northern Westchester Hospital ER. In 2015, he was elected Putnam County coroner.
Bourges’ list of awards and commendations from his myriad careers is long and impressive. He has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NYPD, along with many other citations. In the military, he received the Army Commendation Medal, two Army Achievement Medals, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal with Campaign Star and the Overseas Service Ribbon, among others.
But the award Bourges might be most proud of is the Norman Vincent Peale Outstanding Service Award, presented to him recently by the Putnam County Service Network for his work with the Putnam Joseph P. Dwyer Vet2Vet Program—a program in which veterans help and guide other veterans.
“You get thanked for your service, but more is needed,” he said. “This is peer support. We are not therapists, we are just peers supporting our peers. We have a lot of outreach programs. One we are doing this weekend is we get together with vets who want to write, and they are reading their poems at the Studio Around the Corner in Brewster on Saturday. It’s an opportunity for them to show there is something more to them than wearing a uniform and marching in a parade. It’s a chance to build a support system for themselves.”
Supervisor Ken Schmitt said he was pleased to nominate Bourges for the Hall of Fame induction when he made the announcement at last week’s board meeting.
“He is a wonderful gentleman and we on the board have known him for many years,” Schmitt said. “I can’t think of anybody we would be more pleased to nominate for our Hall of Fame inductee for this year. He has a long and extensive resume, and this honor is well-deserved.”