Opinion

Fairfield native Justin Leonard earns medal in National Guard

Photo courtesy of Justin Leonard

Fairfield resident Justin Leonard, right, poses for a photo with two other members of his Alpha Company, Dalton Jurgens, left, and Mitchell Wirfs.
Photo courtesy of Justin Leonard Fairfield resident Justin Leonard, right, poses for a photo with two other members of his Alpha Company, Dalton Jurgens, left, and Mitchell Wirfs.
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FAIRFIELD - A Fairfield native was recently awarded a medal for his outstanding work in the U.S. Army National Guard.

Justin Leonard, Fairfield High School class of 2014, received the Army Achievement Medal for his “dedication to duty and unwavering professionalism” in maintaining a fleet of vehicles used in training exercises. The exercises were conducted July 13 to Aug. 2 at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota.

Leonard works full-time as a mechanic at the U.S. Army National Guard Armory in Fairfield, but during this three-week training exercise, he had a different mission, which was to be one of the gunners in a convoy of supply trucks. Though it was not his job, Leonard lent his mechanical expertise to the repair crews, correcting problems in two trucks so that they could return to the mission. This meant fewer work orders had to be passed on to the maintenance company, and for that Leonard was given a medal and a certificate honoring his commitment and ingenuity.

Leonard said that his company, Alpha Company, was in charge of transportation on these missions. On occasion, the company would send in trucks needing minor repairs by the maintenance team, Bravo Company.

Even after performing his 12-hour mission, Leonard volunteered his time at the end of the day to review the trucks to be sent to Bravo Company. He often found that the repairs were so small that he could make them himself, obviating the need to send the trucks away.

Training

The training exercises Leonard performed had him command a .50 caliber machine gun atop one of the convoy trucks. In a typical convoy of 12 or so trucks, machine guns would be mounted on a truck in the front, middle and rear of the convoy for protection. This type of truck would have carried supplies such as food, water, fuel and ammunition.

The Army National Guard soldiers underwent the most realistic training possible. The exercises involved responding to different attacks against the convoy from the side of the road, and teaching the gunners and drivers how to spot improvised explosive devices, bombs hidden on or near the road. As the exercises wore on, the organizers made the bombs harder and harder to spot. Initially, they were big cardboard boxes that couldn’t be missed. Later, the bombs were hidden in piles of debris.

As the gunner on the lead truck, Leonard’s job was to spot the bombs and relay that information through his headset microphone by saying “convoy halt,” which the drivers of the convoy heard on their radios. He then called for a bomb squad to dismantle or detonate the IED.

Some soldiers dressed up as attackers who fired guns at the convoy. They and all the members of the convoy wore vests in a high-tech game of laser tag. The guns on the convoy, like Leonard’s .50 caliber, fired blank rounds at the targets, and were equipped with lasers so they could see if they hit the enemy’s vest or not. Leonard said it was so realistic it felt like he was deployed.

“It was about as close to deployment as you can get,” he said.

The transport vehicles used in a convoy are not the same semis we’d be familiar with driving down the highway. Leonard said these vehicles have eight wheels, an oddly shaped front end, and lots of armor. They’re known by their abbreviation LHS (load handling system).

Life before the Guard

In high school, Leonard was more interested in joining the Marines than the National Guard, but that changed once he learned that being in the Marines would mean being far away from his friends and family. Joining the National Guard, on the other hand, would allow him to continue living in Iowa, or even in his hometown.

“In the Guard, I can still do everything I want, and get to come home,” he said. “I work as a mechanic on military trucks, all day, every day from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Once a month, we have to do training classes in Cedar Rapids.”

Leonard was a stand-out football player at FHS, where he made the First-Team All-District as a defensive lineman and was named the team’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. It was quite a feat because Leonard is not a big guy by football standards, measuring 5-feet 10-inches tall and 160 pounds. Leonard was able to land a spot on the football team at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

The coaches in Fort Dodge had other ideas for Leonard given his size and skill set. They switched him from defensive lineman to free safety. The change was so drastic it was like learning another sport.

“I went from always rushing the quarterback to dropping back in pass coverage practically every play,” he said.

Change of course

After a few months, Leonard realized that college football was not for him. It was a tough pill to swallow because he loved football more than anything. He began thinking about what else he could do with his life. He has always looked up to his brother-in-law Justin Deutsch (who married Leonard’s sister Stacia), who has now spent 15 years in the National Guard. Deutsch was a major reason behind Leonard’s decision to give the National Guard a shot.

Almost four years ago, Leonard headed out to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for his basic training. Joining the National Guard has allowed him to make friends from all over the country, and has been one of the best decisions of his life.

Is he nervous about deploying? Leonard said he hopes to be deployed at some point during his time with the Guard.

“People thank me for my service, but I really don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet,” he said. “I’d like to get over there and fight the fight. It scares my parents [Jerry and Lisa] a lot. They worry every day they’re going to get a phone call.”

In addition to his sister, Stacia, Leonard has a brother, Jerred, who is married to Cala and also lives in Fairfield.