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DWI victims tell stories at Urban Mission Bridge Program panel

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Robert B. Burkard was smart, kind, respected, in love with a job in Washington, D.C., and funny. So funny.

“The laughs never stopped when he was around,” his sister, Kathie M. Strader, told a crowd of nearly 75 people Saturday morning at the Stop DWI Victims’ Impact Panel at the First Presbyterian Church.

A father to then 6-year-old Zachary and a wife to Tammy L., Mr. Burkard “was in the prime of his life when he was wiped off the face of the Earth” at 47 years old, she said.

He was killed June 29, 2009, at 5:30 p.m., shortly after the family had left an air show at Fort Drum with plans to meet the following day, Ms. Strader said. The driver, Leo R. Coleman, 29, had a blood alcohol content that was more than twice the legal limit; police said he was driving his Chevrolet Avalanche at about 81 mph when he struck the Jeep carrying Mr. Burkard, his wife and their son at county routes 54 and 125 in the town of Clayton. Their Jeep flipped twice, then rolled again, landing on its roof, leaving Mrs. Burkard with a punctured lung, broken bones and several other serious injuries that required a week of hospitalization.

“It was a crime, not an accident,” Ms. Strader told members of the solemn crowd, some of whom were required to attend as part of the sponsoring Watertown Urban Mission’s alternative to incarceration Bridge Program. “It was a crime.”

After showing side-by-side pictures of Zachary at the time of the crash and nearly 4 years later as what she described as a way to show everything his father missed in his process of growing up, she implored the crowd “to be smart.”

“So I would beg you, I would beg, to do the right thing, to do the only right thing,” she said after telling his story. “You have the power to stop it.”

Bridge Program Director Salvatore J. Ciulo has been holding the panels for about 15 years. In his time working with clients and the legal system, things have changed significantly, a message he conveyed with various statistics and anecdotes in between speeches by victims. DWI was an accepted crime in the 1960s and ’70s, he said.

“We went decades with a slap-on-hand system,” he said. “It was OK for people to drink and drive. We said it was OK.”

Not so now.

“If you go out today and kill someone driving and drinking or driving while impaired, life as you knew it will change completely, period,” he said, noting that penalties now are usually three to four years minimum in a state facility. DWIs also can cost about $10,000, he said, compared with the average cost of an associate degree at Jefferson Community College: $8,900.

Life changed in an instant for Mark D. Eastman, who served 14 years in prison for killing two young adults in a drunken-driving crash in June 1998. The crash also left him in a coma for two months. His daughter committed suicide and his wife left him while he was in prison, but he said that pain doesn’t compare to waking up every day knowing he killed two people.

“I can’t go back in time,” he said. “16 years later and it still affects me every day. … I want to fix it and I can’t.”

Life also changed irrevocably for Martha W. Ivey, whose son, Thomas L. II, was killed at age 27 on Nov. 23, 2003, when the drunken driver with whom he was riding got into an accident on Bailey Settlement Road in the town of Alexandria.

“Part of me died,” she said. “I was afraid to love again. I pushed my daughters away. … They had to suffer themselves.”

She told the crowd to have hope for a life as a proud and productive member of society, and to address whatever underlying issues might drive them to drink, noting that “we’re here to help you.”

“You can change your life,” she said. “We’re not born winners; we’re not born losers; we’re born choosers.”

“Right now you can change your behavior,” she said later. “Everyone here has a wonderful soul.”

The 2013 Run for Recovery, which benefits the Bridge Program, was named in honor of Thomas. This year’s Sept. 6 5K run/walk, 10K run will be named in honor of Tracie J. Antonelli’s husband, Mark A., who was killed in a drunk-driving crash on his way home from work in 2004.

“Drinking and driving is a choice; it’s a poor choice. If you make the right choice, it will save lives,” Ms. Antonelli said at the panel.

Mr. Ciulo said when it comes to drinking and drugs, the Watertown area is comparable to an urban area.

“The education has to be here and has to be enforced,” he said. Upcoming DWI panels will be held June 7, Aug. 2 and Nov. 8, all at the First Presbyterian Church, 403 Washington St.

Mr. Ciulo believes addicts have the potential for change, which is why he continues his mission of spreading education and hope.

“They’re great people but they have rotten addictions that make them make bad choices,” he said.

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