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Leominster family gets tank for park to remember son killed in Iraq

The Roberge family searched for more than two years before they found this tank for the memorial park in Leominster.

Meghan Roberge

The Roberge family searched for more than two years before they found this tank for the memorial park in Leominster.

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 spent searching for it, Pauline and John Roberge said their relief was palpable, they just wished it was their son driving the M60-A3.

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On Feb. 9, 2009, the Roberges’ 22-year-old son, Private First Class Jonathan Roberge, died near Mosul, Iraq, when a suicide bomber shattered the Humvee he 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.

Pauline Roberge still cries when she describes how much her son loved driving tanks. John Roberge is calm and composed talking about his son, but admitted the topic leaves him “lost for words.”

Had a love for tanks

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Time has not healed the pain the way people say it will, Pauline Roberge said. Maybe spending two years focusing on a park memorializing their son’s death has not made the grieving any easier, but the Roberges felt that they had to do something for their son 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 Roberge, and a replica of a wall at his former base in Iraq, on which soldiers painted the names of all their compatriots who died in the war.

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“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.”

A local steel company is applying the final touches to the tank, but Roberge expects it will take up its permanent place in the park within the next week. A final date has not yet been set for the park’s ultimate completion.

Obtaining the M60-A3 was a battle. The Army does not 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.

“We had plenty of obstacles, plenty of trials and tribulations,” said Justin Brooks, president of the Jonathan Roberge Memorial Park Committee.

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.”

Todd Feathers can be reached at todd.feathers@globe.com. ­Follow him on Twitter at @ToddFeathers.

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