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Back from battle, thankfully

Marine sergeant injured in Iraq radiates gratitude to fellow veterans

US Marine Sergeant Shane Burke lost part of his leg when a bomb detonated near his vehicle in Iraq. US Marine Sergeant Shane Burke lost part of his leg when a bomb detonated near his vehicle in Iraq. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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After an explosive device ripped through his Humvee in Fallujah, Iraq, five years ago, Sergeant Terrence “Shane’’ Burke lost half his left leg and barely escaped with his life.

Yesterday, the 33-year-old Marine stood before the crowd at Dorchester’s annual Memorial Day ceremony in Cedar Grove Cemetery as a man who not only survived his injuries but has thrived despite them.

Burke was an ambitious Boston police officer and avid runner when he went off to war. He is now a crime scene technician for the department. Wearing his prosthesis — and ignoring the plate in his left forearm and the screws in his right ankle — he runs as many 5K road races as he can without tearing his skin grafts.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,’’ he said with a grin. “Forty or 50 years from now, I’m going to be in really bad shape.’’

But Burke radiated gratitude in a speech to hundreds who came to participate in one of the neighborhood’s oldest traditions, a parade and graveside tribute to those who have died in military service. He acknowledged heroes of long-ago wars, a litany of veteran’s service organizations, the troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the medics who saved his life.

And before and after the ceremony, he stopped to say hello to each of the cops and EMTs he saw, something his older brother, T.J. Burke Jr., said he does wherever he goes.

“You’ve never seen him on an airplane; we’re almost late for every flight because he has to shake every [officer’s] hand,’’ he said. “We go to the Bruins game, every cop, he’s got to shake everybody’s hand. He wants them to know . . . ‘Thank you for welcoming me back.’ ’’

Burke’s recovery has not been easy. His Purple Heart, he said with a wry laugh, is “the one medal you don’t want to get.’’ But as war veterans return home to a sluggish economy and, all too often, anemic support networks, Shane Burke seems to be one of the luckier ones.

His brother — who yesterday wore a T-shirt with Shane’s name on it — flew to meet Burke at a hospital in San Antonio when he arrived from Germany, dependent on a respirator, his skin blackened from the explosives.

When Burke returned to Boston, he was flabbergasted, and elated, when 50 Marines and about 150 Boston police officers on foot, motorcycle, and horseback turned out to greet him.

And although Burke had to give up his patrolman’s job, his advocates at the department helped him find a position that he has grown to love for its variety and challenging combination of science and law. Yesterday morning, he had been at work gathering evidence at a murder scene until 3 a.m.

“It’s phenomenal,’’ he said. “I get to travel all over the country, attend trainings, attend seminars, meet fellow officers. . . . From Alaska to South Beach to San Antonio to Maine, I’ve made friends.’’

He remains a staff sergeant in the US Marine Corps Reserves, on inactive status. He tries to attend veterans events when he can and to reach out to other returning veterans. He encourages them to find veterans groups and make connections, and to open up about their experiences.

“I believe when you do talk about it, it releases this built-up pressure and tension inside of you,’’ he said.

Officer Liz Philbin, who helped train Burke as a patrolman in South Boston before he went to war, was beaming yesterday. The terrible day she learned he was wounded felt long past.

“That was probably the worst day I’ve had on the job, and now to see him here, it’s probably one of my proudest days,’’ she said. “It’s a long road, but the whole department couldn’t be more proud of him.’’

A number of other veterans and politicians also spoke at the Cedar Grove ceremony, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who declared yesterday Francis Murphy Day in Boston, in honor of US Navy veteran and Dorchester resident Francis Murphy.

Murphy led veterans events in Dorchester and Fenway Park for decades; he was injured in a fall last autumn and is recovering at a nursing home, said his friend, John O. Scannell, of the William G. Walsh Post #369 American Legion.

“All of us out there,’’ the mayor said, “just take a little time to send Fran a note to say, ‘We’re thinking of you; Memorial Day wasn’t the same without you, Fran.’ ’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.