FITCHBURG (CBS) – Technically, it is a loaner from the U.S. Army.
But as the sparks fly from workmen running grinders and welders atop this 56 ton chunk of metal, Pauline Roberge knows it’s a keeper.
“Most of the time I bite my tongue to fight the tears,” she says. “Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.”
On February 9th, it’ll be four years since her oldest son — 22-year-old PFC Jonathan Roberge — was killed in Iraq.
And for half of that time, family and friends have been scouring the nation for a tank to honor the Leominster native, and serve as the cornerstone of a small park on Mechanic Street dedicated to his memory.
“The emotions are overwhelming,” says his father John Roberge. “I have to walk away from it every once in a while and then go back at it.”
But they are not alone. Their friends, their town, and even strangers have pitched in along the way to make it happen.
Why the tank?
Jonathan was actually trained as a tank driver at Fort Hood, Texas before his deployment to Iraq. But when he got overseas, the streets of Mosul were too narrow for tanks. So he was reassigned to drive his Colonel’s Humvee, which hit a roadside bomb, killing Roberge, the Colonel, and three other soldiers.
As you might imagine, tanks are hard to come by off the battlefield — especially if you’re intention is to stick it in a city park.
But after pestering the Army for two years, a tank finally became available earlier this month — surrendered by a National Guard Armory that was closing its doors in North Carolina.
“They didn’t want it,” says Rick Vouture, Leominster’s Director of Veteran’s Services, whose staff spent countless hours getting the deal done. “And because we were so persistent, they gave it to us.”
The Roberge family gathered on the Johnny Appleseed Lane bridge over I-190 to watch it arrive.
“It was awesome on the one hand,” explains John Roberge. “But then when I thought about what it really meant, it was hard. Very hard.”
The paperwork alone is mind boggling in such a deal. A Carolina trucking firm agreed to cut-rate transport, thanks in part to an ex-Army truck driver who volunteered for the job.
Indeed, the hard work and generosity of volunteers has been key every step of the way — like the Fitchburg company that is making the tank ‘park-ready’. Workers at Steel-Fab Inc. are sealing the tank to weather, making it safe to climb on, stripping the rust and repainting it with desert camouflage — all for free.
“Some big companies like to calculate their stock price by the hour,” says Steel-Fab president Mark Freeman. “We kind of look at it the old-fashioned way, and figure that paying it forward and doing the right thing is the way to go.”
Eventually joining the tank at Roberge Park will be a bronze statue of Jonathan, tributes to the four others who died with him, and a memorial to all Massachusetts Vets who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is still much emotional work to be done — and much fundraising.
“The pain it’s giving me is nothing compared to what all these soldiers went through,” says John Roberge. “It has to be done.”
Re-painting will begin by week’s end, and the tank will be in place by the 4th anniversary of Jonathan’s death.