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Vietnam veteran donor tours Wellsburg museum

WELLSBURG — A retired Army officer recently toured the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum and Educational Center after donating two sketches he brought back from Vietnam.

Jim Brockman, the museum’s executive director, unveiled a display incorporating a photo of retired Lt. Col. James R. Leonard, sketches of a small fleet of Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, commonly known as Hueys, and another of one ascending in front of a radar unit.

Leonard said they were drawn by a crew chief with whom he served in Vietnam, where he was an aviation section leader from 1972 to 1973.

The 21-year military career of the Weirton native included stints as aviation platoon leader in Germany, aviation officer in Korea from 1985 to 1987 and air space management officer in Saudi Arabia as well as airfield commander and aviation commander at Fort Lewis in Washington and inspector general at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

While in Vietnam, he flew missions just south of the demilitarized zone, but he declined to speak much about the dangers he encountered.

Asked if he was ever concerned about his safety, Leonard said, “I think everyone has that fear in the back of their mind. You have to control that. Every soldier does.”

A 1966 graduate of Weir High School, Leonard had attended Marshall University, where he joined the ROTC.

Leonard said like many who enlisted at that time, he felt certain he would be deployed to Vietnam.

Asked what influenced him to join the military, he said, “When the light bulb goes off in your head that you owe something to this country.”

Leonard added his grandparents, who raised him, supported his decision.

Leonard earned a master’s degree in business administration and management from Webster University in 1979 and followed his military career with 27 years in the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia, retiring as a captain.

He has taught military science at the University of Montana and criminal justice and security at the University of Pheonix’ Augusta, Georgia campus.

Much of that information is found in the small display bearing his photo.

Leonard said he prefers to see his inclusion in the museum’s Vietnam War collection as part of a salute to all who served in the conflict.

He was asked if there’s truth in stories about Vietnam veterans receiving receptions ranging from cold to nasty.

“When you came back from Vietnam, you were treated badly. I think all soldiers went through that,” said Leonard, who conceded it could vary somewhat according to a soldier’s location.

“We’ve all joked that we didn’t get our parade until after Dessert Storm,” he said, noting many Americans have in more recent years become sympathetic to the earlier generation of veterans.

But Leonard added, “I want this to be about all soldiers. There are so many soldiers who came back who have mental issues and who we haven’t supported 100 percent.”

He said the Army provided him with an interesting career and an opportunity to see many places.

“I got to travel a lot. I was very lucky. And I got to do different jobs,” said Leonard, who noted his service took him to Europe, Montana, Alabama and North Carolina.

When the display was unveiled, he said, “What a treat is all I can say. Usually, I’m not at a loss for words but truthfully, I can say I’m at a loss for words.”

“Now I won’t fade away. I’ll be here forever,” Leonard added.

Located within the Brooke County Public Library, the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum holds one of the nation’s largest collections of artifacts related to the experiences of veterans who fought against Japanese invaders during World War II, including many who were captured and forced to walk the Bataan Death March.

In recent years, it has expanded to include items from other eras.

During Leonard’s visit, he and family and friends were given a tour by Brockman.

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