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Colleagues Mourn Leominster's Soldier Death

The town of Leominster mourns the death of its first soldier in the Iraq war. Army Private Jonathan Roberge, 22, died Monday in a suicide bombing in Mosul. Roberge graduated from Leominster High School in 2005. Before joining the army in 2008, he worked as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in nearby Ayer.

WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti traveled there, and has this report.

Audio for this story will be available later this morning.

The Gerrvais Ford Dealership sits just off a small rotary on route 2A. To the guys in service shop Jonathan Roberge was simply, Johnny.

MIKE OUELLETTE: Great smile. Big, big smile. Johnny had a big smile.

Mike Ouellette was Roberge's manager for the two years before he decided to join the army.

OUELLETTE: I know when he told us all he was thinking about going in the service, we were all concerned but it was something he really wanted to do and he was looking forward to it.

Ouellette says he understood. His own son served in Afghanistan. In fact, of the dozen guys in the shop, half are former enlisted men from every branch of the military. They're close, like family. And, Roberge impressed every one of them.

SEAN THOMPSON: Ah, boy. A young guy, full of energy. Smart, intelligent. He'd help me any time I'd ever asked him to.

Sean Thompson served in the Navy for 20 years. He's a senior mechanic now, specializing in diesel engines. He and Roberge often spoke about the military as they pushed trucks in and out of the garage.

THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. But you could tell he wanted to do some other things, too. We had a long talk and I told him of all my good experiences in the Navy and he would only get positive things from it.

Roberge wasn't sold on being a sailor. He liked cars, and liked being hands on with equipment. Mark Theibault says Johnny would be up to his elbows in engine parts when they'd talk about Theibault's time in the Marines.

THEIBAULT: You know, I told him it had its ups and its downs, you know. And it's a scary time right now. But that didn't bother him. You know, he wanted to do it. The kid was proud to serve his country, and I'm glad he did.

Theibault says Roberge was a quick learner. For his senior project at Leominster High School, Roberge built a replica V-8 engine for a '69 Chevy Camero. At the Ford Dealership, technician and Air Force veteran Lou Cummings says he wasn't surprised when a young man that capable and restless decided to join the army.

LOU CUMMINGS: He loved basic training. He loved his extra training. He loved driving the tanks. He was just having a good time.

When Roberge enlisted in January 2008, he trained to be a tank driver. His first deployment in December was to Mosul. And there, on Monday, he was on patrol driving a Humvee, not a tank, when a suicide car bomber detonated beside him.

DAVE COULIN: It was very devastating to hear that. I mean, you know, so young.

Dave Coulin was very close to Roberge. Coulin's fiancee babysat Johnny when he was a kid. Coulin and Roberge had talked about the Army a lot, and Coulin says back in November, when Johnny was home on leave, he thought his friend had done the right thing by joining up.

COULIN: Whatever void there was, he was complete. He was just so enthused about it. I was just so happy for him, you know, until now. But if I knew now, I would have never suggested it.

Which is why, along with the pride, there's a heavy sadness at the Gervais Dealership. Mechanic Javier Nevis comes as close as anyone to saying why.

JAVIER NEVIS: All of our kids is going, and for nothing. We're fixing nothing. And it's hard. And that kid, he was a very lovely guy. It's hard to say.

And that's the hardest part, Nevis says. Because when Johnny died, they didn't just lose a member of the family. Nevis says they lost all the potential Private Jonathan Roberge was discovering within himself.

This program aired on February 12, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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