Remembering a soldier

BOYLSTON — The corner of Mill Road and Sewall Street is now Burkhardt Square after the official dedication of the Navy Airman John "Jay" W. Burkhardt Jr. memorial on Monday.

Burkhardt, who grew up on Mill Road and served as a volunteer fireman for the town, died in a military helicopter crash in June, 1990. He was 21 years old.

It was a brief but, at times, emotional ceremony that Selectmen Chairman James Wood described as impressive in its turnout, which numbered several dozen civilians and members of the Boylston Police Department and the Boylston and West Boylston fire departments.

State Representative Harold Naughton Jr., a veteran of the most recent Gulf War, paraphrased scripture when he said attendees at the ceremony "stood on the shoulders of angels."

"Memorials are a great thing because they observe sacrifice," Naughton said. "While we mourn the death of Jay and the heartaches it caused, we need to remember and celebrate the way he lived, and the way he stepped up.

Serving his country was Burkhardt's choice, Naughton said. There was no draft at the time, but there was talk of a possible military action against Iraq.

"Anyone who swears (the oath) knows they are writing a check to the United States of America for any amount, up to including their life," he said. "He probably thought about that. He probably talked to family about it. He probably acknowledged that possibility, and yet he still stepped forward. There's a special place in heaven for people who make that decision."

The burden, Naughton said, now lies with everyone else to carry the memory of those who made that sacrifice, those whose friends and family did not understand that decision, and those who found "it difficult to explain, but hoped if their loved ones did not understand it, they accepted it."

Naughton tied free-will military service to the recent government shutdown, during which the American people went on with their daily lives.

"If that happened in many other countries, tanks would have been in the streets, soldiers would have been in your homes. The government would have fallen," Naughton said. "But, because young people for 237 years have been making those choices, the country stands strong, the Commonwealth stands strong, the community stands strong. Because of those choices, because those sacrifices, our foundation is solid.

"Because of the strong foundation of this republic, created and nurtured and maintained by the Jay Burkhardts of our country, we stand strong. We can disagree, but we stand strong.

"On a day like this — Veterans Day ... it is incredibly appropriate to take time out to stop by the side of the road and have a thought about a young man who made that difficult choice. He made that choice that allows us to continue and have faith in the strength of this republic and the strength of our community."

And, Naughton said, it is "entirely appropriate" that the story of Jay Burkhardt, and all of the country's citizen soldiers, be discussed.

"This monument should be a living breathing entity in the community, and what it represents should be discussed because how will the young know what went before them if the stories aren't told?" Naughton asked.

Pointing to soldiers in the crowd, Naughton said it was their duty to tell those stories.

"Tell the story of Jay Burkhardt. Tell the stories of your service ... to the young. Because, at some point or another in their lives, they'll probably have to make a choice that those around them may not understand, but if they see the example of Jay Burkhardt, and the hundreds of thousands of other like Jay Burkhardt, they'll know it's the right choice, and their loved ones will accept it as well.

"Mourn the losses, celebrate the life," Naughton said. "Celebrate the choices and tell the story."

Wood was named as the driving force behind the memorial by John Burkhardt Sr., who said the idea was first proposed during Wood's first tenure on the board of selectmen in the 1990s.

"He said, 'tell me what you want and we'll get it going,'" Burkhardt said.

Wood, who grew emotional when welcoming attendees, said Burkhardt was well deserving of the town's recognition.

"It was something I couldn't get done the first time," Wood said. "We talked about it toward the end (of his first tenure), but we didn't get it done. After I was re-elected (two years ago), I ran into (Burkhardt Sr.) and the story started again.

"He was just a nice, nice kid," Wood said. "He was someone who really represented the town well."

Burkhardt told the assembled family and friends that his son would be proud of the recognition, but was not the type of man to seek the recognition.

"He's looking down and he's saying 'what's the fuss? I just went and did what I wanted to do,'" he said. "There was discussion, I tried to keep him home, but he would have none of that. He was going off to be part of something bigger than all of us. And now, he's part of something even bigger than that."