Montville — A Montville High School graduate was one of seven Marines killed when two Marine Corps helicopters collided in a training accident Wednesday in Arizona.
Lt. Col. Thomas Budrejko, 37, was a former Oakdale resident who served as the executive officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. He lived in Temecula, Calif.
Friday night, his father, Donald Budrejko of Reston, Va., remembered Tom as the "perfect Marine." His son, a 1992 graduate, wrestled and played football at Montville High.
Tom wanted to be in the military since he was a boy, his father, a Navy veteran himself, said.
"He died doing what he wanted to do," Donald Budrejko said. "He wanted to be a Marine and he wanted to fly. It was sad when two Marines and a chaplain showed up at door, I knew this isn't good, but that's the way he would have wanted to die. We're pleased he did what he wanted to do."
Along with his father, Thomas Budrejko survivors include his wife and son, his mother, Mary, and three siblings.
"He was one of a kind," his aunt, Gail Budrejko of Newington, said Friday evening. "He had so many happy times that he left with us. That's going to get me through."
"The people whose lives he touched just weren't the same," she said. "He truly was just a one-of-a-kind individual."
The collision, which occurred over the Arizona desert, is one of the Marine Corps' deadliest aviation training accidents in years. The names of the dead were released late Friday. Along with Budrejko, they are Capt. Michael M. Quin, 28, of Purcellville, Va.; Capt. Benjamin N. Cerniglia, 31, of Montgomery, Ala.; Sgt. Justin A. Everett, 33, of Clovis, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Corey A. Little, 25, of Marietta, Ga.; Lance Cpl. Nickoulas H. Elliott, 21, of Spokane, Wash.; and Capt. Nathan W. Anderson, 32, of Amarillo, Texas.
"Every single one of these Marines impacted our squadron in their own special way, and the entire Marine Corps aviation community is feeling their tragic loss," said Lt. Col. Stephen Lightfoot, commanding officer of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469. "I ask that you pray for the families and friends of the warriors we have lost."
Officials said it could take weeks to determine what caused two helicopters, an AH-1W Cobra and a UH-1 Huey, to crash in midair during a routine exercise Wednesday night, killing all aboard. Skies were clear and the weather was mild.
The accident occurred near the Chocolate Mountains along the California-Arizona border — a sprawling desert range favored by the U.S. military because its craggy mountains and hot, dusty conditions are similar to Afghanistan's harsh environment.
All the Marines were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. With 17,500 Marines and sailors, including personnel stationed at Camp Pendleton and Yuma, the unit conducts hundreds of aviation training exercises a year so troops can get as much experience as possible before they go to war.
Two of the Marines who died were aboard the AH-1W Cobra and the rest were in the UH-1 Huey utility helicopter. They were flying in a remote section of the 1.2-million-acre Yuma Training Range Complex as part of a two-week standard training called "Scorpion Fire" that involved a squadron of about 450 troops from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Thomas Budrejko graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in aerospace engineering in May 1996 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was designated a naval aviator and an AH-1W pilot in 1999.
Gail Budrejko said serving in the military was her nephew's "life-long dream."
"My brother (Donald Budrejko) was a pilot in the Navy and both Tommy's grandfathers served in the Navy," she said. "The military was in his blood."
Thomas Budrejko participated in Operation Rapid Cheetah in Kosovo in 2001, deployed to Kuwait in 2003, attended a weapons and tactics instructor course and immediately deployed again to support the operations in Iraq. He taught at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in 2005 and deployed again briefly.
He earned a master's degree in military studies from the USMC Command & Staff College, graduating with distinction. He reported to Camp Pendleton in 2009 and has deployed to Afghanistan.
"My heart goes out to their family," said Montville Mayor Ronald McDaniel. "It's just terrible."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said in a joint statement, "The Budrejko family has our deepest sympathies during this difficult time. It is a terrible day when we lose a man who was so committed to serving his country, and we stand with his family and friends in grieving his loss. Our hearts go out to Lieutenant Colonel Budrejko's family, friends and the other Marines, soldiers and airmen with whom he served."
"The military is a demanding and dangerous profession and we're reminded about the courage and determination it takes to defend our nation even when out of the war zone," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.
Flags will be lowered to half staff on the day of Budrejko's burial at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in New Britain. Other details of the funeral arrangements are pending.
Donald Budrejko said a memorial service for the seven Marines killed is scheduled for March 2 at Camp Pendleton.
He said his son would want to be buried on Connecticut soil, at the family plot. Lots of family and friends still live in the Montville area, he said.
"He would want to be remembered as a humble guy," Donald Budrejko said. "He never wore his rank on his sleeve and never bragged about his exploits. He wanted to be remembered as just Tom."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.