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Eden says farewell to Afghanistan vet fatally injured in N.J. highway crash

His platoon in Afghanistan called themselves “The Avengers,” and they named their lieutenant “Captain America.”

John J. Levulis, who had always dreamed of being a soldier, was happy to take the title.

At his funeral in Eden on Saturday, Capt. Levulis’ friends and family members wore small Captain America shields pinned to their chests and a large version adorned the lectern in honor of the young man whose dream was to serve his country and community. Those who knew him best testified to how well the nickname suited him.

His uncle, Jim Ranney, told the hundreds who gathered inside the Eden High School auditorium that John realized early on that he wanted to do something worthwhile.

“And his leadership abilities began to come forward,” Ranney said. “He was in Boy Scouts, school government and he was captain of the lacrosse team. In Scouts, he earned every badge possible. His Eagle Scout project was the veterans memorial at the American Legion.”

Ranney added that there were times when “John did not mind not being in charge – he just didn’t like that someone else was.”

His nephew’s code was simple, he said.

“Do your best. Work hard. Be respectful. Show up. Do the right thing,” Ranney said, “and sometimes, ‘Kwitcher bellyaching.’ ”

Capt. Levulis’ father-in-law, Joseph Viviano, described him as “a man of loyalty, character, courage and respect,” and a guy who liked to put hot sauce on everything and was a fan of “The Walking Dead.”

The officer also could make a mean mojito, complete with mint leaves, his younger brother, James, told the gathering. James – he said he was known as “Little Levulis” in school – revealed that the handsome, broad-shouldered soldier everyone knew had been ... a chubby middle schooler. He didn’t tell his brother’s secret, however, until after his heartfelt tribute to the man who considered it his duty to lift other people up to reach their highest potential.

“I don’t think that John was always aware he was setting an example for others,” James Levulis said.

Many of those others stood along the road holding flags Saturday morning or were among those who filled the school auditorium to show their love and respect. The streets of Eden were lined with flags, and the captain’s name was on the sign board of his former school.

It has been more than a week since Levulis, 25, died from injuries suffered in a highway accident while on duty May 1. He and three other soldiers were in a Humvee, the last in a convoy en route to Fort Dix, N.J., when the vehicle was hit and run off the road by a sports car. They were just a few miles from their destination after riding most of the day from Fort Drum.

“He made it through so much, through Afghanistan,” his father, Gary Levulis, said Friday. “It just doesn’t seem to make sense. I had messages from him that day. I thought they already were at Fort Dix. Then Saturday morning, his wife called. We knew something was wrong.”

Levulis and his wife, Barbara, immediately headed to the New Jersey hospital to be with their son.

Two of the injured soldiers are out of the hospital and are expected to fully recover. The driver of the Humvee, Staff Sgt. Bryce Leek, 35, of LaFargeville, suffered critical damage to his spine and died from his injuries Friday morning.

Levulis, a 2008 Eden graduate, was commissioned as a second lieutenant following graduation from the Niagara University ROTC program in 2012, and was posthumously promoted to captain this week. He also was awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Afghanistan campaign medal, NATO campaign medal, Airborne Wings and the Meritorious Service Medal in his brief military career, which included a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2013-14.

This was going to be his last year in the service, his father said. He had studied criminal justice at Niagara and planned to go into law enforcement after his discharge.

Prior to his deployment, Levulis and fellow NU graduate Julianne Viviano were married in a small ceremony with just their families present.

“They said they would do it and we didn’t have to be there, but we said your parents should be there,” her father said at the funeral home on Friday. “You never know, and you don’t want to be sorry you weren’t there.”

The couple was planning a large wedding celebration for July 18, one day after what would have been their second anniversary.

Instead, loved ones gathered this weekend to comfort one another and to try to process the loss of someone so promising during a routine trip on a highway at home.

The Eden Fire Department hoisted American flags from its ladder trucks Saturday morning, and three dozen Patriot Riders escorted the funeral procession. Members of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Reserve were on duty along with local police, and a military honor guard attended to the fallen soldier.

During the service, Ranney mentioned that he and Julianne Levulis had talked about the huge turnout, and they agreed: “John might have considered the response to be a bit much, a bit over the top – but he also would have thought it was pretty cool.”

Saturday’s service ended with the only music of the event, a song Levulis had once said he would like to have played at his funeral, “Carry On, Wayward Son,” by the group Kansas.

The opening lyrics:

“Carry on my wayward son/

There’ll be peace when you are done/

Lay your weary head to rest/

Don’t you cry no more.”