A gift before shipping out

Bethel Park Marine attends his child's mock graduation from high school before being deployed to Afghanistan


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Melanie Burchfield, a senior at Bethel Park High School, hates being the center of attention.

And yet on Wednesday she was willing to endure more than 100 pairs of eyes set directly on her as she received her high school diploma during a ceremony at the school.

She made the sacrifice so that her father, Jim Burchfield, a major in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves, would be able to watch her graduate in her white cap and gown in a mock ceremony put together by school officials.

Maj. Burchfield, who is assigned to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory's Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Division in Quantico, Va., is being deployed to Afghanistan on Tuesday and will be gone for six months, missing the high school's real graduation ceremony June 16.

When he got the deployment news and realized it meant he would miss Melanie's graduation, both father and daughter were sad.

"I've been there for all of their special occasions and for every Christmas," Maj. Burchfield said of Melanie and her two brothers. "It would be like a punch in the gut to miss graduation. That's a date you don't want to miss."

Maj. Burchfield contacted high school principal Zeb Jansante on March 20 via email asking for a "mock photo op graduation."

He expected a few people to gather around Melanie in her cap and gown for photos.

But what Maj. Burchfield got was a ceremony in the auditorium attended by 100 or so students who are members of the Principal's Advisory Council of Students, of which Melanie is a member, Mr. Jansante, superintendent Nancy Aloi Rose and two of Melanie's favorite teachers, Christine Robb and Nick Santora.

Also attending was Melanie's brother, Michael, 22, a Marine based at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in California. Michael, who will deploy to Afghanistan around the time his father is returning, is home on leave for his sister's graduation and his father's departure.

Melanie's other brother, Danny, 20, could not attend because he is a member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is currently serving on a ship in the South Pacific.

Other guests included Melanie's stepmother, Patti, and her best friends Emily Wagner, Alycia Jimenez, A.J. Baroffio and Alexa Roth.

There were short speeches by Mrs. Rose and Mr. Jansante and then the diploma presentation. And like any graduation day, those moments were followed by the traditional tossing of the graduation cap, lots of hugs and kisses, and photos. The ceremony was followed by a reception with balloons and a graduation cake.

High school secretaries Judy Daley and Donna Murphy were responsible for getting the gown and cap, complete with black and orange tassel and genuine Bethel Park diploma with Melanie's name inscribed. Mr. Jansante joked during the ceremony that Melanie must give the diploma back to ensure that she continues to attend school for the rest of the year.

Maj. Burchfield said the event was much more than he expected. "This is so gracious I cannot say enough," he told the school officials who put the event together.

Mr. Jansante said the district will try to Skype the real graduation ceremony in June for Maj. Burchfield to watch live.

Despite her discomfort with all of the attention, Melanie said she also appreciated the effort.

"I think it was really nice of them to do that. I am really happy," Melanie said.

After her real graduation in June, Melanie plans to attend Waynesburg University, where she will major in special education.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published March 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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