Thousands of salute Army Pfc. Jonathan Roberge as his body returns to Leominster
By Marisa Donelan
Sentinel and Enterprise
LEOMINSTER — Brian McCarty of Gardner stood in front of Leominster City Hall on Tuesday morning, holding a large American flag high in honor of a hero.
He joined thousands of people who lined the streets of the city to welcome home the body of fallen Army Pfc. Jonathan Roberge, who died last Monday in Iraq when an explosive detonated near the Humvee he was driving.
“My daughter, who lives in Leominster, called me and told me they’re bringing him home today,” McCarty said. “He’s a hero. I sped down here just to welcome him home.”
McCarty’s flag was a gift from his own son, who is serving in the Army and brought it home for his father from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he said.
“I feel so sorry for all of the families who have
Brian McCarty of Gardner waves a flag on West Street that his son, Army Sgt. Brian William McCarty, Jr. brought back from Guantanamo Bay, while he waits for the procession of Jonathan Roberge through downtown Leominster, Tuesday morning. (SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / BRETT CRAWFORD)
lost loved ones in this war,” he said. “They’re all close to our hearts, it doesn’t matter whether they’re from Arizona, Florida or Leominster. They’re all out there for us.”
Roberge, a 2005 graduate of Leominster High School’s Center for Technical Education, joined the Army last January and deployed to Iraq in December.
The blast that killed him also killed three other men from his unit, the Department of Defense reported.
Roberge’s family, along with Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella and city Veterans Services Officer Richard Voutour, met a plane carrying his body at the Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford on Tuesday morning. That’s where the recognition started, Voutour said, as people from all over the base stood along Hanscom streets.
A State Police escort led a hearse and limousines from the Brandon Funeral Home on Route 2; they were joined along the way by a truck from the Leominster Fire Department and dozens of motorcycle riders from the Patriot Guard, a volunteer group that provides escorts for military families.
Voutour and Mazzarella said fire departments from towns along the route sent out ladder trucks holding flags in the air, and police departments sent cruisers out to exits all along Route 2.
“There were concentrations of people all over,” Voutour said. “All the way down the route there were fire departments who had brought their ladder trucks out, with American flags draped between the ladders. It was very impressive.”
Mazzarella said “there are no words” to describe what it means for so many people to show their respect and support for the soldier and his family.
“It was amazing, just so powerful,” he said.
People stopped all along Route 2 and on the highway overpasses to watch the procession, Mazzarella said.
“This family has just touched the community,” Mazzarella said of the Roberges. “They’ve really brought up their kids well, they’ve instilled that sense of community service and kindness.”
In Leominster, people packed the procession route, standing three or four deep along the Leominster Connector and Mechanic Street, to watch as the procession went through the city and up West Street into Fitchburg to the funeral home.
Leominster resident Jon Williams, 27, said he was glad to see a lot of children standing out during their February school vacation, waving flags as the family passed through the city.
“Kids are exactly the ones who need to understand, they have the freedom they enjoy because of people like Jonathan and everyone else who serves,” Williams said.
Sisters Anne Andrews, Christine Delisle and Kathleen Mills all went to downtown Leominster to hold flags in honor of Roberge.
They grew up in the Vietnam War era, and watched as servicemen were scorned by protesters when they returned home from combat.
“We’re not going to let that happen again to our soldiers,” Delisle said. “(Roberge) wanted to make a difference, and I think he made a difference in this whole community.”
Delisle said she and her family members recognize that “this 22-year-old young man gave his life for me, for all of us.”
Mills said she attended the procession out of respect for the Roberge family and out of patriotism.
“This turnout is awesome,” she said. “I’m very proud of Leominster today.”
Police Chief Peter Roddy said the size of the crowd was heartwarming.
“People just really want to show their support for the family,” Roddy said. “It’s a very, very sad loss for the community.”
Ward 3 City Councilor Claire Freda — whose husband died from wounds sustained in Vietnam — stood by Helen Hill — whose son David Hill died in Vietnam in 1969 at the age of 22 — and said the lessons of the Vietnam generation have shown a need to honor the military.
The size of Tuesday morning’s crowd proved the value Leominster residents place on service, Freda said.
“All you have to do is ask, and this community steps up,” she said. “People know what to do, they really care.”
City Councilor at-large and State Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, said the procession was “spectacular.” Rosa, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, said he was moved by the turnout.
“It’s especially comforting for those of us who lived through that time,” he said. “People now may differ in their opinions on the war, but they certainly put those feelings aside and came through.”
Ward 5 City Councilor Richard Marchand called the procession and the turnout “a great tribute to one of Leominster’s heroes.”
“We in this community, at a time of such great loss, know it’s important to let the family know that we care deeply,” he said.
Roberge’s body will lie in state 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today at Leominster City Hall, 25 West St., and his family will receive visitors at a wake from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. in City Hall.
His funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Cecilia’s Church, 180 Mechanic St.