By Ken Leonard
It was a surprise for Jeff Leonard. For his family and friends, however, a gathering Jan. 2 to honor his military service was no surprise at all. They’d worked to help the U.S. Army veteran know how much his 28 years of service and dedication are appreciated.
His brother, Ken, shared Jeff’s story and a little background on the Quilts of Honor presentation, held at River Oaks Church near Sutherland Springs, just after the year began.
A couple of months ago, I got a call from my cousin, Stephen Willeford, who had some great news. An organization called Quilts Of Honor had selected my brother, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery Mark Leonard, to receive a handmade quilt honoring his service to our country.
Stephen is practically a fifth brother to Jeff, me, and our brothers, Ron and Shawn.
I told him I hoped to be at the Jan. 2 event, but since I work in disaster relief, my schedule is subject to the weather.
Unfortunately, the day before Christmas, storms rolled into North Texas toward our home in Forney. Our town was OK, but tornados left a path of destruction from Waxahachie to Farmersville, and I had to help set up relief efforts. I wouldn’t be able to attend Jeff’s presentation.
An air traffic controller with the Army, Jeff served in Iraq with Operation Enduring Freedom. Part of the 25th Infantry out of Hawaii, called “Rolling Thunder,” he was one of the people who keep the soldiers safe who keep us safe, supporting some famous and familiar units, such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne.
While setting up a helipad in northern Iraq, a mortar round exploded 25 yards away, throwing Jeff into the wall of a building. Miraculously, he only got a concussion.
Jeff once described setting up antennas under fire from a distance.
“An AK 47 isn’t the most accurate weapon on earth, but if you throw enough lead into the air, you’re bound to hit something eventually,” he said.
When some Special Forces guys showed up, they asked what direction the fire came from. Jeff pointed toward the source, and told them “over there.”
“A short while later, it sounded like a the Fourth of July over there!” Jeff recalled.
When they returned, they told him, “You won’t be catching any more fire from that direction.”
When Jeff came home, he handed me a folder; as I opened it, something fell out.
Picking it up, I realized it was a citation for a Bronze Star he received for rewriting air regulations at COB [Contingency Operating Base] Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, for his service as an air traffic controller.
On the day of Jeff’s Quilts of Honor presentation, Stephen picked Jeff up, on the premise they were going to help a friend.
Jeff was taken completely by surprise. He was presented with a beautiful handmade quilt that includes highlights of his service to our country.
Surrounded by family and friends, Jeff was wrapped in the quilt, made for him by volunteers with Quilts of Honor.
I’m told he wept like a baby, like almost all of their honorees do. It is part of the healing.
My brothers and cousins added to the surprise for Jeff -- a nice Browning 25-06 deer rifle with one of the best scopes you can buy -- to replace one that had been stolen from him.
I love you brother, and I am so proud of you. I know you understand why I couldn’t come. If anybody knows about duty, it is you.
Quilts of Honor
Established in 2010 by Vietnam veteran Gail Belmont, Quilts of Honor makes and presents “a universal symbol and token of thanks, solace, and remembrance to those who serve in harm’s way to protect and defend our lives and freedoms,” according to www.quiltsofhonor.org. Volunteers spend countless hours to prepare these unique quilts to let those who serve know their sacrifices are appreciated.
“Our hope is that these quilts will provide comfort, love and healing to those who have given so much.”
Debbie Hayes and Dorothy “Fred” Brett spearhead the Bexar County Quilts of Honor chapter, which made and presented Jeff Leonard’s quilt.
“We knew he’d served multiple tours in Iraq,” Debbie said, adding that her son, William, was instrumental in bringing Jeff’s story and need to the quilting group. The chapter presented more than 160 quilts to veterans in 2015 -- including World War II veterans who participated in an Honor Flight last fall, Debbie said.
Bexar County Quilts of Honor has more than 100 members, and welcomes volunteers.
Nominate a veteran to be honored with a quilt, and find out more at quiltsofhonor.org, or contact Fretter@att.net.