PHELPS - Robert Lootens was never more proud of his son than when he saw him in his military uniform at a Syracuse train station a few years ago.
That's when Lootens realized that his son, Army Sgt. E5 Jonathan Lootens, had turned his life around.
On Wednesday, Robert Lootens said his final goodbyes to his son, as family and friends gathered at St. Francis Church to celebrate Jonathan Lootens' short life.
Lootens, 25, a Newark native and member of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, was killed in Iraq earlier this month when the Humvee he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Just a few days earlier, he was injured when another IED struck a Humvee in which he was serving as gunner.
He was given a full military funeral that included the family receiving a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and other accommodations for his bravery and service while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the two-hour Mass and funeral service, about 30 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationally known group of motorcyclists who travel around the country to pay their respects to fallen soldiers, stood at attention outside as the American flags they were holding flapped in the wind.
Inside, Lootens' family recalled how the military changed his life for the better. As a teen, he got into his share of trouble with the law - as a runaway and someone who sometimes worried his mother so much she wondered if he would come home alive, they said.
But when Lootens joined the service soon after Sept. 11, 2001, motivated by a sense of duty to his country as much as to himself, everything changed, family members and Army officials said yesterday.
His father read a letter he wrote to his son a few years ago at Christmastime, recalling how proud he had become of him. It was a letter reflecting that his son "fell on tough times," "bottomed out" and left him "soul-searching," his father said.
But his son then made big strides in his life. And it was never more obvious than the day he saw Jonathan wearing his uniform as he was about to leave, Robert Lootens said, because he felt the "pride that only a parent of a soldier could feel."
The young man's sister, Andrea Ralyea, 26, of Victor, remembered how she used some "colorful language" when she tried to talk him out of joining the service, but he had already made up his mind.
Now, she said, she realizes that he made the decision because he "wanted a better life," adding that in recent times he talked about a law career or working with troubled youths.
"My brother was a humble man who would not want all of these accolades," she said, noting that he looked at his service in Iraq as "doing his job."
Although her brother never acknowledged the help he received from them when he was younger, she urged mourners to recognize that her brother's turnaround showed "it's never too late to make a difference in your life or the life of a child."
Describing him as "a little rascal," Ron Fillmore - a retired Wayne County Sheriff's Department lieutenant - befriended Lootens and became a mentor to the troubled teen. The two kept in contact, writing letters to each other even after Lootens was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Recently, Lootens told his old friend that he wanted to pursue a career in writing, so Fillmore sent him a copy of a magazine called The Writer to help him achieve that goal.
Three days after Lootens "left us," Fillmore received a letter from Lootens thanking him for the gift, he said.
"History is going to show you as the true American hero," Fillmore said. "We love you, and we miss you, and we'll always miss you."
Brig. Gen. Robert Caslen, who represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday, described Lootens as a brave soldier who saved a colleague's life while serving in one of two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
He also quoted several soldiers who spoke at a Mass in Iraq a couple of days after Lootens was killed. They described him as a leader, friend and comrade who would do anything for a friend or his soldiers, Caslen said.
One soldier called him "the hardest working and most disciplined sergeant I've ever worked with," Caslen added.
As speakers said their goodbyes, the church was silent, except for the faint sound of sniffles and a toddler's soft voice that could briefly be heard.
Accompanied only by his guitar, local musician Steve Duprey sang a spiritual tune he penned that seemed to sum up the sergeant's life:
"Like a ship upon the sea, you held me up but let me be,
Let me find the person I was to become.
Always strong and at my side, never forcing as you guide,
Teaching me the simple steps so I could run."
Near the end of the Mass, the Rev. Thomas Mull from St. Mary's Church in Canandaigua told mourners that, although "Phelps is a tiny place, today, America is in Phelps. Thank you, Jonathan, for your service, for your sacrifice."
Outside, shopkeepers, townsfolk and others stood in doorways, parking lots and along the village's neatly kept streets to watch the precision and elegance of the military funeral procession.
After the church service, an Army color guard led mourners out to the small brick church's front yard, where "Taps" was played and the flag that had been draped over Lootens' casket was removed and presented to his family.
His casket was carried by military pallbearers, who carefully placed it in the awaiting hearse.
With a fall chill in the air, the color guard and pall members saluted their fallen comrade one last time. The hearse's back door was closed, and the mourners remained on the church's manicured lawn for several minutes after it slowly pulled away.
Lootens was to be buried in St. Francis Cemetery.
Phelps resident Charles VerStraete thanked one of the Patriot Guard Riders for being at the service.
"It shows dignity," he said before getting into his car. From the Finger Lakes TimesMourners honor Jonathan Lootens
(October 26, 2006) — PHELPS — As a teenager, Jonathan Lootens was "a troublemaker." It wasn't uncommon for police to be searching for the runaway.
"Somewhere along the way, Jon decided that was not the life he wanted to have," his sister, Andrea Ralyea of Victor, said at his funeral Wednesday. Now she hopes his life will be a lesson to others.
"Whatever path they are on, it's never too late to change," she said.
Sgt. Lootens, 25, a native of Newark, Wayne County, was killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 15 in Kirkuk, Iraq, while serving with the Army's 25th Infantry Division. He had been in Iraq since August on his second tour of duty. Earlier he served in Afghanistan, where he was known to give children goldfish-shaped crackers mailed from home.
About 200 people, including friends, relatives and military personnel, filled St. Francis Church in this Ontario County community for his funeral.
Ralyea said her brother enlisted in the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"He said, 'This is something I have to do,'" she said. "When Jon sets his mind to something, nothing is impossible."
His father, Bob Lootens of Phelps, read a letter he sent overseas to his son a few years ago. He recalled rocking his son to sleep in his arms, the "rebellious little guy" who wouldn't take off his hat in school, the basketball and football games his son played.
He also talked about the sadness and pride he felt saying goodbye to his uniformed son at the airport, "the pride only the parent of a soldier can feel, knowing their child is no longer a child, but a responsible adult. ... Thank you for giving your parents the greatest gift of all: seeing your child grow."
Retired Wayne County sheriff's Lt. Ronald Fillmore had befriended Sgt. Lootens over the years.
"History is going to record you as a true American hero," Fillmore said. "We love you, Jon; we'll never forget you. You are a great friend and a true hero to our nation. I salute you, sir."
Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen, based at West Point, represented the military and spoke "as a fellow brother and warrior," relaying tributes that Sgt. Lootens' friends gave at a memorial service in Iraq.
"He would do anything he could to complete the mission," one person had said.
"He cared about his soldiers," said another.
"A self-proclaimed grumpy man, he always completed his tasks," Caslen said. "His sacrifice will never be forgotten."
Lootens' father and mother, Deborah Qualtieri of Norwalk, Conn., accepted several awards on behalf of their son, including the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for meritorious service.
The Rev. Thomas Mull said that although Sgt. Lootens' friends and family may mourn his death, they should be assured that he is at peace.
"Why Jonathan; why now? Twenty-five years young and just beginning to find himself. Why now?" asked Sister Joan Sobala. "There is no answer."
Mull said Phelps may be a small community, "but today, America is in Phelps. And America says thank you to Jonathan for his sacrifice."
The congregation broke into applause.
"Let There Be Peace on Earth" and "America the Beautiful" were sung, and a white-gloved honor guard carried the flag-draped coffin out of the church, saluting after placing it into a black hearse.
Outside, about 40 members of the Patriot Guard, motorcyclists carrying large American flags, bordered the front of the church. After a 21-gun salute, a bugler played "Taps" and a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."
American flags wrapped in tight triangles were presented to each of the soldier's parents.
Burial will be private at St. Francis Cemetery in Phelps. From the Democrat and Chronicle
Related Link:Jonathan Lootens killed by I.E.D.