For more than two years, the Roberge family has been working to honor their slain son and his fellow Iraq veterans the way they think he would have wanted: a memorial park featuring one of the tanks he loved to drive.
The 57-ton tank rolled into Leominster several weeks ago on the back of an 18-wheel truck. After 26 months searching for it, Pauline and John Roberge said their relief was palpable, they just wished it was their son driving the M60-A3.
On Feb. 9, 2009, the Roberges’ 22-year-old son Jonathan died near Mosul, Iraq, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives, shattering the Humvee Jonathan was driving.
“Jonathan used to joke with us that he was ‘a big deal’ because he was the colonel’s personal driver and got to drive tanks,’’ John Roberge said in a telephone interview. “So if he saw the tank we got, he’d say, ‘Of course you got a tank, because I’m a big deal.’’’
Pauline still cries when she describes how much Jonathan loved driving tanks. John is calm and composed talking about his son, but admitted the topic leaves him “lost for words.’’
Time hasn’t healed the pain the way people claim it will, Pauline said. Maybe spending two years focusing on a park memorializing their son’s death hasn’t made the grieving any easier, but the Roberges felt they had to do something for Jonathan and the other Massachusetts veterans who died in Iraq.
When the memorial, located at the corner of Johnny Appleseed Lane and Mechanic Street, is completed, it will house the tank, a bronze statue of Jonathan, and a replica of a wall at Jonathan’s former base in Iraq, on which soldiers painted the names of all their compatriots who died in the war.
“It’s not going to be the kind of place you go for a picnic,’’ John Roberge said. “I want people to feel what these men — what they had to go through. It shouldn’t be a walk in the park, it should feel like war.’’
Obtaining the tank was a battle. The Army doesn’t just hand out the million-dollar war machines to anyone who asks.
Only a limited number of tanks are decommissioned for public use – many of them as memorials or exhibits — and the process of acquiring the permits to transport them on highways is complicated and expensive.
The Roberges found no lack of support in Leominster, though. Volunteers have spearheaded the park project, and everywhere John Roberge goes, people ask what they can do to help.
“We had plenty of obstacles, plenty of trials and tribulations,’’ said Justin Brooks, president of the Jonathan Roberge Memorial Park Committee. “Several times we had potential tanks but things were very political and we didn’t get them. But we’ve finally got a tank up here.’’
Four times the park committee thought they had found a tank they could rent from the Army and move to Leominster, but each one fell through.
Then, last April, the committee heard that a town in North Carolina could no longer maintain their M60-A3 and was willing to give it up. The transportation and permitting costs came to around $30,000, Pauline Roberge said.
“The tank is going to help people to not forget any of [the soldiers who died in Iraq],’’ she said. “One thing I always dreaded is that I didn’t want Jonathan and his comrades to be just a number.’’
Sure, getting the tank to Leominster seemed as hard as if the Roberges had to carry it there themselves, but when she thinks about it, Pauline remembers the pictures Jonathan used to send them of himself leaning out of a tank’s hatch smiling.
“He loved the tank so much,’’ she said. “People will stop in and see it and that it was someone’s son, or wife, or daughter who died and that they made a difference.’’