Memorial Armed Forces Reception is Friday

Published 1:51 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What began as a small gathering of high school students and armed forces veterans in the Spring of 2007, and was staged as an interactive reception where one generation could convey orally its war experiences to the next, has now grown into a major armed forces reception at Picayune Memorial High School’s Kelly Wise Memorial Gym.

The 6th annual reception is set for Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Two receptions were held that first calendar year, one in the spring and another in the fall. The reception was established as an annual event thereafter.

It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and better every year, says sponsor Allison Wheat, PMHS history teacher.

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On Friday, besides the veterans displaying their memorabilia and talking and interacting with students, Navy Special Boat Team No. 22 from Stennis will attend the reception, and two Civil War re-enactment teams will be on-hand, the Fenner’s Battery and 4th Co.,  Washington Battery.

In addition, Wheat, a founder of the reception, said that, besides students and veterans, the general public is invited to attend. There is no charge and refreshments will be available.

Also, said Wheat, the family of Army Staff Sgt. Jerry C. “Chip” Burge, Jr., will be on-hand to greet and meet attendees. In 2009, the reception was officially named after Sgt. Burge, who was killed in action in Iraq on April 4, 2007.

Burge’s funeral procession down Goodyear Boulevard and a discussion with a veteran at the funeral procession inspired a group of students to begin the reception as a way of honoring servicemen who have served and died for the U.S. in its wars.

The students, with the help of their teachers, Wheat and Glen Mitchell, tailored the reception to be an interactive affair in which students meet, and get to know and listen to the stories of the veterans who show up with their memorabilia, but it’s to mainly listen to the stories.

Sgt. Burge’s father, an aunt who helped raise him, and his three children, will be on-hand to meet participants on Friday, said Wheat.

“This is probably going to be one of the biggest ones and best ones we have had, and we are expecting a large crowd,” she said.

Several thousand attended last year’s reception, and sponsors of the event say if it gets much larger, the affair will outgrow the gym.

Festivities begin at 8:30 a.m. and continue to 3 p.m.

The gym is on Fifth Avenue behind the Picayune Memorial High School Auditorium.

In addition to high school students, Picayune elementary students and students from the St. Charles Catholic School will attend.

The reception grew out of an incident that occurred when Sgt. Burge’s funeral procession rolled past Picayune high school on Goodyear Boulevard in April 2007, Wheat said.

Since Sgt. Burge’s funeral procession was scheduled to roll past the high school, school officials allowed students to line the boulevard to honor the fallen soldier. An estimated 1,500 students lined the boulevard for the procession.

After the procession had rolled past, a student from Wheat’s history class saw a VFW veteran wiping tears from his eyes, and the student walked over to the veteran, shook his hand and told him, “Thank you for your service,” said Wheat.

Then the whole class walked by and thanked him, said Wheat, and the old soldier continued to cry.

“Are you all right?” asked his wife.

“Yes,” replied the old veteran. “I feel better than I have felt in a long time.”

When the students returned to class, they told Wheat that they wanted to create a reception to honor the veterans and hear their stories, to show appreciation for what the veterans had done and sacrificed.

Only a few weeks later, the first reception was held and 13 veterans showed up and interacted with the students and told their stories. A fall reception was held a few months later when the next school year began.

For that session, 47 veterans and members of the Armed Forces attended; in 2008, 79 veterans were at the event, and on Nov. 6, 2009, 125 veterans came. The reception has continued to grow.

Burge was killed in action on April 4, 2007, when the vehicle he was riding in was destroyed by an improvised explosive device in Taji, Iraq. Killed with Burge was Army Cpl. Joseph H. Cantrell IV.

Burge was 39, a native of Carriere Community, and was assigned to the Second Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment, First Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas.

He was posthumously awarded five medals during his funeral ceremonies in Picayune.

Burge served eight of his 11 active duty years overseas and had amassed 50 medals for his service when he was killed in action.

His fellow soldiers called him “an inspiration and a leader” at his funeral. He is buried in New Palestine Cemetery.