Out in front: a hero’s story

By on June 4, 2011

Tom Leonard (right) reunites with fellow soldier, Josh Bullis, whose life he saved after Bullis lost both legs and an arm in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Courtesy Photo

by Lynn Meredith
SUGAR GROVE—Tom Leonard went from being a 2005 Kaneland graduate to receiving the Army Commendation Medal with Valor, the Purple Heart and the American Red Cross Hometown Heroes Award—all in the space of a year and a half.

He went from working food service for the Kane County Cougars to clearing bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) from the paths and roadways ahead of the infantry in Afghanistan. And in fulfilling his duties as a combat engineer with the 2nd Engineer Battalion, he saved a fellow soldier’s life and risked his own.

Fourth-generation military, Leonard had been thinking about enlisting since he was 16. So, in November 2009 at age 23, he decided it was the right time and the right job.

“I blow stuff up,” Leonard quipped when asked what his job was. Then he added, “My job by definition is to emplace and clear obstacles.”

He explained that his job was to go out in front of the troops and blow up walls, old buildings and even trees to gain a clear view ahead for the troops. His unit doesn’t plant bombs as much as it clears the path ahead where the enemy could be hiding. Even so, his unit emplaced nearly 100,000 bombs.

Being at the very front of the line can be a stressful place to be, but Leonard said that training makes all the difference.

“They train you to (have nerves of steel). If you feel more comfortable and less nervous, the more confident you feel in your job. The first time, you’re looking around (over your shoulder), but after that you do it a few times and it’s second nature.”

As part of a mobility unit, his troop went wherever they were needed and lived under a variety of conditions—all of them hot. With temperatures that soared to 130 degrees, Leonard said the only relief was to drink water and try to stay in the shade.

The friendships he made were inevitable under the dangerous conditions. He and 30 other “sappers” became close as they forged ahead to clear the way.

“These are my brothers in arms. We’ve been together 24/7. We know each other inside and out—all the little pet peeves,” he said.

So it was on a routine mission one September evening in 2010, with three others in his unit, including Josh Bullis, that their friendships were tested.

“We went 100 meters out to set up defensive mechanisms so that we could better defend ourselves, and as we walked down the path, an IED went off. We were hit by an explosive device. We all got blown about 20 feet,” Leonard said.

Leonard took shrapnel to the neck and sustained a severe concussion, but Bullis was hurt far worse.

“When I came to, I saw that the lieutenant was down and had taken shrapnel to the groin. (Then I saw that) my buddy had lost both legs and an arm,” he said.

Leonard applied three tourniquets as he had been trained to do and carried Bullis to a safe zone to await the helicopter. Three medics were on the scene and began helping the wounded soldiers.

“I tried to bust them off me, so they could work on the other guys. I wasn’t as serious,” Leonard said.

For his heroism, Leonard was presented the Medal of Valor by David Petraeus. He later was awarded the American Red Cross Hometown Heroes Award.

Bullis now has prothetic legs and arm. He is driving again, and through sponsorship has his own truck. He’s also walking a little. Leonard saw him for the first time in April. Even though they may not be stationed together again, Leonard is sure about one thing.

“Whether I see him in New Mexico or not, I guarantee I’ll see him,” he said.

Leonard’s mother, Kathy, has lived through knowing her son was injured and watching his recovery from afar.

“Oh, just knowing that your child is injured and you can’t get to him, it was the worst year of my life,” she said. “The army gave him a cell phone to call me. He told me he was injured, and ‘I’m in the hospital. I’m OK.’ Over and over, he kept saying he was OK.”

She received a call from his captain within a few hours to make sure they had been able to talk, and within 24 hours, the Army called to make sure she knew her son was okay.

They talked on the phone several times a day.

“There were times when he just needed to talk,” she said. “It wasn’t easy listening to what he had to say, but I just stayed strong, listened to what he had to say, hung up the phone and lost it.”

The family was surprised and relieved when Leonard came home for a two-week leave at Christmas. Sending him back to continue his job was tough for Kathy. Now, he’s home on leave again, and will be stationed in New Mexico when his leave is up.

Both mother and son agree that Leonard has changed through this experience.

“I’m definitely a different person, not necessarily for the worse. Anyone who deploys, they will come back different. That’s one thing families need to expect,” Leonard said. “Most people don’t change that much in a year, but under that kind of stress and environment (they do). You get a better perspective of the world compared to the U.S. You realize some people get mad over stupid stuff like ‘What’s taking so long with my cheeseburger?’ You know? I mean, at least you have cheeseburgers.”

Kathy agrees that little things don’t matter as much as they used to.

“He’s a lot more mature. He grew up fast. Overall, he’s still who he is, (but) I knew the son I sent to war was not coming home. I knew that. I accepted that,” she said. “Going through this (with him), my whole outlook on life is so much different. Little things don’t matter anymore. He almost died.”

Leonard returns to military life, but not combat life for the time being. He wants to concentrate on integrating back into life in the states.

“Right now the biggest thing is just adapting and re-emplacing myself into civilian life,” he said. “For the most part I like what I do. I don’t regret joining up. I don’t regret going to Afghanistan. Would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. At the same time it’s not easy being away from family and friends and being a long way from home. I’m relieved to be back in the states.”