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Remembering a hero

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One can never know the strength of a rod until it is bent — whether it will snap under the pressure or be molded into something new.

Our community has proven time and time again that we are forged in fire and built from steel. This does not mean we’re invincible; it means we bend so that we do not break.

On Thursday, our community's strength was tested with the loss of a Webster County Sheriff's Deputy. Sgt. Justin Burney passed away in a wreck on Interstate 44 when his vehicle was struck head on, shortly after he went off duty to pick up his children from school.

By definition, a hero is a person who is admired for courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities. There’s no better word to describe Justin Burney.

It's no surprise Sgt. Burney chose the thankless career of being a law enforcement officer. His family instilled core values in him from a young age that helped to shape his servant heart. Kindness, respect and service for others were truly in his DNA. 

My father describes the Burney and Atkison families as lifelong friends for generations. While I was not a close friend of Justin's, there are numerous nights I can recall from a decade ago running around between Marshfield and Niangua. Whether it's the recollection of my first bottle rocket fight, watching a Niangua Cardinals basketball game, playing "stretch" in a friend's back yard, or sitting next to a coming-of-age birthday bonfire by the river, any memory I have involving Justin brings a smile to my face.

Grief is a complex emotion. You may have never met Sgt. Burney, on or off duty. This does not mean that your sorrow at learning of his death isn’t valid or that you should try to suppress feelings of grief. Grieve. Cry. Be empathetic for his family who is hurting and the officers who had to arrive at the scene of one of their own.

My heart aches for my brother, who was close with Justin and responded to the scene. Before Justin was Sgt. Burney, he was the student resource officer (SRO) at Marshfield High School. His and my brother's friendship blossomed once Bo became a deputy and found himself looking to Justin as a mentor. With Justin's guidance and support, my brother eventually became an SRO.

My brother lost a great friend and mentor, but the emotions he has had to process are minuscule compared to those of his family.

It is our duty to honor Justin’s memory and support his loved ones during the time they need it most. We should support his children, who are facing a long road ahead, and we should pray for his fiancée, whom he was to marry next month.

There is a makeshift memorial taking shape outside the Webster County Jail where members of our community have been dropping off flowers and showing their support. Donations for the Burney family can be made at the Seymour Bank or Central Bank.

While our community may be hurting right now, we will remain resilient — and resilient people do not fold. When we are shaken by the unexpected, we are like the steel rod, bending with the pressure and becoming stronger with every new shape we're forged into. We will never break.

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