Marine will lead Memorial Day observance
An American hero will address his neighbors as the guest speaker on Monday for the town’s annual Memorial Day celebration. Although Col. Gerry Leonard was raised in North Kingstown, his Jamestown roots are deep.
At one time Leonard’s grandfather owned a general store on Narragansett Avenue. His father grew up in town, working as a lifeguard at the East Ferry beach and eventually teaching elementary school on the island. The colonel can still remember spending his childhood summers on the island, where he now resides with his family.
After graduating from North Kingstown High School in 1983, Leonard went to Hartwick College in upstate New York. His roommate in his freshman year was Jay Sutton, who is the son of Bob Sutton, a former town administrator who now manages the community farm. Leonard graduated in 1987 with a degree in economics. He took his degree to Wall Street, where he worked as an analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank for a year.
“I was pretty naive about what bankers did, what brokers did, and what traders did,” Leonard said.
It wasn’t long before Leonard realized that the corporate life was not for him. Home for Christmas break one year, he met a Marine Corps colonel who suggested that Leonard would make a good Marine officer.
“He told me a story of his experience in 1965 in Vietnam and he was talking about it with so much passion that it seemed to be something I was missing in what I was doing,” Leonard said.
He was persuaded. Leonard enlisted in the Marines and graduated from Officer Candidate School in 1989. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant. The following year he completed the Infantry Offi cer Course and was assigned as a rifle platoon commander with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, in Camp Pendleton, Calif. The infantry battalion is widely known as “Dark Horse.”
The assignment came just in time for Leonard to take part in Operation Desert Storm. He was in the Middle East for seven months as part of an amphibious flotilla that sat off the coast of Kuwait. He ended up coming ashore in Saudi Arabia, and traveled up to Kuwait City. That’s where he was when the Gulf War ended.
He was on a ship headed back home when Bangladesh was hit by a massive typhoon. Leonard and his unit went ashore for nearly a month as part of a humanitarian operation to feed the displaced population and help restore some stability to the area.
Leonard then transferred from the infantry unit to a Marine reconnaissance unit, and ended up going to Somalia late in 1992.
“Originally we thought we were going in to do a humanitarian operation,” Leonard said. “It turned into something other than that. There was definitely some combat mixed in.”
After Somalia, Leonard was promoted to captain and stationed in Quantico, Va., where he taught lieutenants in what was called The Basic School, where newly commissioned Marines are sent to learn the art and science of being an officer. He then returned to Camp Pendleton in 1999 where he was put in charge of a rifle company.
Leonard was once again deployed to the Middle East. He was overseas in support of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Desert Fox, which sought to reign in the ambitions of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. As a show of might, Leonard and fellow soldiers marched to the Kuwait-Iraq border. According to Leonard, this was part of an effort to gain political support for defending Kuwaiti airspace.
Back at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Leonard attended and graduated from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. He also progressed through the School of Advanced Warfighting. He was then assigned to be an operational and strategic planner to II Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Lejeune, N.C. It was during this time that he took part in combat operations in Iraq, serving with the U.S. Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Leonard was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 2005 – he trained over 900 reserve Marines for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was able to return to his hometown area when he was assigned to the Naval War College in Newport in 2008. Leonard graduated the following year and remained at the school as a member of the faculty.
Following his time as an instructor in Newport, Leonard deployed to Afghanistan where he served for a year as the plans chief for Gen. David Petraeus during Operation Enduring Freedom. His family remained behind, and while he was overseas, his wife bought a house in Jamestown.
“Even though she’s a California girl, I think she’s convinced that when I do hang up the uniform, I want to retire in Jamestown,” Leonard said.
These days Leonard is a chief of naval operations fellow for the Newport-based Strategic Studies Group.
“We look out to the future – and what a future naval campaign and what a potential conflict might look like in the future – and try to develop concepts of how the Navy might be able to win in that type of environment,” he said.
Leonard said that during his year in Afghanistan, which coincided with the surge, he witnessed significant progress on the ground. “The surge was effective. I think the surge matched the strategy that was adopted, and it was working.”
Leonard said there is a lot of good that has taken place in the Middle East, but at the end of the day it’s the Afghan political structure that is the most important piece. He says that before U.S. forces can pull out, the government needs to be in place. “How that goes will ultimately be in the Afghan’s hands.”
Leonard was selected to speak at the Memorial Day ceremony by Bruce Livingston, head of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Livingston, a Marine colonel just like Leonard (although retired), solicited the Naval War College to help find a speaker for the occasion. Leonard said he was honored and privileged to be able to speak because it’s Memorial Day and because he is native to this area.
“I am grateful that there are towns like Jamestown that take an active interest in Memorial Day,” he said, “and that there are citizens who don’t wear the uniform who take an active interest in remembering the sacrifices that their fellow Americans have made on their behalf. To me that’s what Memorial Day is about.”