By Jim Hoehn, images Benjamin Slane

Mike Burzelic viewed his mission at Wood National Cemetery as more than just an equipment operator. He was preserving history by honoring those who made it.

Burzelic is retiring after 11 years as part of the six-person crew responsible for burials and maintaining the 50-acre historic cemetery established in 1871 on the grounds of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

“We took care of our fallen and passed away Veterans and their spouses, and that’s all you can ask for,” Burzelic said at small retirement ceremony. “We did our best. I did my best.”

As with all of the current cemetery staff, Burzelic is a Veteran, serving 32 years in the Air Force Reserve with the Milwaukee-based 440th Airlift Wing, including one deployment to Iraq.

“I won’t forget this place. I won’t forget everything that we’ve done and how we’ve done it,” he said.

Cemetery foreman Bill Janowski said it will be hard to replace one-sixth of a tightly-knit, passionate crew.

“It’s unique that I have a crew that’s all Veterans,” Janowksi said. “To use the phrase of Harley-Davidson, ‘If I have to explain it to you, you don’t understand.’ There’s no explanation needed for us because we’ve been there. We’re just taking care of our brothers and sisters.”

“Through proper management, you train your crew, and you plan for this kind of a thing,” said Janowski, who has known Burzelic for almost 40 years and served with him in the 440th. “You press on, but now you have to step up a little bit to fill the void.”

Janowski said the physical requirements of the job to meet mandated standards discourage some applicants.

“In looking at the cemetery, it looks easy, it looks peaceful,” Janowski said. “But there’s a lot of hard work involved. Those grave markers we just off-loaded are 80 pounds each. An upright is 240 pounds.”

Burzelic was confident that his eventual replacement would continue the prideful tradition of the cemetery crew.

“I was taught by good people and I hope I taught some of you good people the way I was taught,” Burzelic said.