Monday, September 03, 2007

Jason Butkus remembered

Even when he a 9-year-old, Jason Butkus had his survival skills down pat -- and he made sure those around him did, too.

The West Milford native often went trailblazing with his two younger sisters, Tonya and Vanessa, in the woods near their house. It became a routine: The three would amble along until Butkus would abruptly sprint into the foliage, leaving the girls with no choice but to find him by looking for his tracks. It was tough love.

"He always wanted to make sure me and Tonya were on top of our survival skills," said Vanessa Butkus, 28, yesterday, at the gray- shingled country-style home where the three siblings grew up. "He loved being the big brother, he was very protective."

Butkus, 34, died Thursday after a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee in Baghdad, where he served with the 1st Infantry Divi sion. He was the only soldier killed in the attack, and the 82nd service member with ties to New Jersey killed in Iraq. During his 12-year military career, he was stationed across the United States, including Alaska, and as far away as Korea.

The two sisters spoke through tears yesterday as they recalled snippets of their brother's life. His first job was as a pizza maker at the Pizza Place, a cozy pizzeria in downtown West Milford. He was a Cub Scout. He once named a pair of bald eagles "Stars" and "Stripes." And he was in love with the idea of becoming a soldier.

But even before he dreamed of becoming a soldier, he fantasized about being a knight, Vanessa But kus recalls, and as a boy he would don a costume of armor on Halloween.

"He wanted to be a knight and then he thought, 'Well, a soldier is the next best thing,'" she said.

Jason Butkus graduated from West Milford High School, where he ran sprints and long-distance for the track team. Always up for an adventure, he tried his hand at other events like shot put. He was also on the wrestling team until he broke his collarbone, said Tonya Butkus, 32.

The soldier's former wife, Amanda Butkus, and 9-year-old son, Connor, live in Alaska. In addi tion to his two sisters, Jason But kus is survived by his mother and stepfather, Cheryl and Edward Bohn of Old Bridge; and his father, Michael Butkus of Houston.

From the Star Ledger

Related Link:
Jason M. Butkus dies 'of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit'