|From The Sentinel and Enterprise sentinelandenterprise.com
Leominster soldier found his calling, family says
By Marisa Donelan
Posted: 02/12/2009 06:01:06 AM EST
LEOMINSTER -- John Roberge started to steel himself against his worst fears on the drive home from work Monday night, after his teenage daughter called to tell him two Army soldiers were at their Leominster house.
The father of four knew that meant something terrible had happened to his son, Army Pfc. Jonathan Roberge, 22, who was serving as a tank crewman in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
"I guess I was trying to prepare myself, because they don't come to your house unless it's something very bad," John Roberge said. "I said, 'Please, tell me he's just hurt.' "
Jonathan Roberge died Monday when an explosive device struck the Humvee he was driving, in an attack that also killed three other soldiers.
His family members --
parents John and Pauline, sisters Meghan and Sarah, brother Andrew and many relatives -- have been broken by the loss, they said Wednesday during an interview at their Johnny Appleseed Lane home.
The young soldier had been itching to start his deployment in Iraq, having found a calling in the military, his family said.
He died just shy of two months into his 16-month deployment. He is the first Leominster resident to die in the war in Iraq, and the first to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
"He couldn't wait to go over there," said his sister Meghan, 19. "He loved what he was doing."
Jonathan Roberge, a 2005 graduate of the Center for Technical Education at Leominster High School, went through the automotive technology
program, where he received training to be a mechanic.
"When he was a kid, he was always taking things apart," John Roberge said of his son. "He was always getting into my toolbox and working on things. I remember him taking his bike apart."
In school, the teen focused best on his work in the auto tech shop, sometimes giving a less-serious attitude about his academic classes, Pauline Roberge said.
"He loved to work with his hands," she said.
Jonathan Roberge started working
at an area auto dealership in high school while finishing his classes and stayed on as a mechanic after graduating, but he wasn't getting enough hours of work and started feeling frustrated with the job.
"He wasn't really getting anywhere, and it was turning into a dead-end job," John Roberge said. "He came home one day and told (his mother) he was thinking about joining the Army. He went around with that, going back and forth, for a few ... weeks. Then he finally decided to do it."
Jonathan Roberge joined the Army in January of 2008, his parents said.
His parents thought their oldest child might be a firefighter when he grew up, because he spent a lot of time visiting an uncle who worked on the Leominster Fire Department and
"One time after they came back from a call, we were at the station and they brought Jonathan around on the truck, just around the Gallagher building (downtown)," John Roberge said. "That kid thought he was somebody. It was all he talked about."
His parents gave him a Power Wheels fire engine that he drove all over their neighborhood, after he dug out his snow boots and a plastic helmet to wear as a makeshift uniform, they said.
As an adult in the Army, he trained to drive a tank, and was identified as one of the best drivers in his group, John Roberge said.
But the tanks wouldn't fit down the narrow streets of Mosul, his parents said, so the group took a Humvee on their missions.
"They told him he would be driving a tank," Pauline Roberge said. "They were supposed to keep him safe."
His parents don't know yet what exactly caused the explosion, and John Roberge said he heard it was an improvised explosive device (IED) or a car bomb, but the Army is still investigating it.
News reports on the attack this week said it was the deadliest against American troops in nine months.
"I don't quite have all the facts yet," John Roberge said.
Jonathan Roberge went through basic training at Fort Knox and was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, where he was assigned to the 3-8 Cavalry.
At Fort Hood, he took over as a driver for an Army colonel, a job he didn't like at first because he thought it might take him away from some combat duties, John Roberge said.
Before being moved to Texas, his father said, he seemed anxious about not knowing anyone there, but soon met a good group of close friends in his unit, including a tank commander who also died Monday.
The commander, an Army sergeant, became his best friend in the Army. The Roberges are hoping to go through the military to reach out the family members of the other soldiers who died Monday, they said.
"At the end of the day, when he got there, the guys all took him out, trying to be his buddy, and made him feel like he fit," John Roberge said.
Pauline Roberge said her son was quick to make friends throughout his life, and he loved the other soldiers he met.
"He had a good attitude and he loved everything about it," she said of his experience in the military "He was very fun-loving. He was always so nice, always thought of other people first."
He was also a good big brother to his three younger siblings, his parents said.
"They were all very close, they went through their times of little sibling rivalries, but it was never anything too big," Pauline Roberge said. "He was so different when he came home after joining the Army. He was a man."
Sarah Roberge, 17, had her family laughing Wednesday morning when she told a story about a hide-and-seek game in which her big brother talked her into hiding in the family's laundry chute. Her feet started slipping in the metal chute, and the other kids eventually pulled her out after some moments of panic.
"I believed anything he told me," she said. "He would tell me to do the stupidest thing and I would do it."
Andrew Roberge, 11, said during his brother's leave at Christmas time, the two spent hours playing video games on their Xbox and running around the house with Nerf dart guns.
"I still can't believe it," Andrew Roberge said of his brother's death.
Jonathan Roberge spent his last days in Leominster visiting with friends and family. He loved the Il Camino restaurant and went there about six times in 10 days home, his mother said.
They had a send-off party with all of his friends, Pauline Roberge said, showing photographs of the event, most of which feature Jonathan Roberge showing off a megawatt smile and goofing off -- wearing a kids' plastic camouflage helmet and holding a toy gun in some pictures.
She paused on one picture her son, because he appeared to be crying as he hugged a partygoer.
"He told us he was going to kick some butt," she said, sobbing. "I just want Jonathan back. I want my son back, I want him back."
Pauline Roberge said the family is "completely numb" over the loss of her son.
"He believed in what he was doing," she said. "We were so proud of him. We are so proud of him. But why do you have to die to be a hero? He served his country, isn't that enough?"
Both parents said they have received "unbelievable and overwhelming" support from their friends, their big family and the community.
Funeral arrangements haven't been finalized yet, John Roberge said, but added his sister's husband, an Army lieutenant colonel stationed in Germany, will be escorting the young soldier's body home.
"It really means a lot to us," John Roberge said, beginning to cry. "At least I know he's in good hands."
The family is also working with Avidia Bank to establish a memorial fund, which Pauline Roberge said will likely be used to set up a scholarship in her son's name at LHS or some kind of funding to support the CTE auto tech shop.
Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella said the city is preparing to honor Jonathan Roberge when the memorial services are set. People have been calling Mazzarella's office non-stop asking if there is anything they can do to help.
Mazzarella said many people know the Roberges for their community activities, through the LHS Band Boosters -- of which John Roberge is the president -- and Pauline Roberge's work as an LHS Life Skills aide, as well as her volunteerism.
"This family has spent their whole lives giving back," he said. "It's often without a whole lot of fanfare. Now they've given the ultimate. They just sacrificed much more than anyone can imagine."
American flags are being placed on light poles downtown, and the city's veterans organizations are chipping in money to buy more flags to line along Mechanic Street, because the funeral is expected to be held at St. Cecilia's church, Veterans Services Officer Richard Voutour said.
Mazzarella said the city is preparing a "hero's welcome" when Jonathan Roberge returns to Leominster.
"Whether it's raining or snowing, we want to honor him in a proud way, in the right way," he said.