There are no tears on the warpath.
In fact, soldiers aren’t allowed to cry or mourn in the slightest for their fallen fellow warriors for fear that it may compromise their mission or disturb their mental focus.
That’s a pretty solid rule in the military, save for one exception.
That exception is Memorial Day.
“That’s the only day I have for crying and mourning and remembering all the loved ones who perished while they were serving with me,” said decorated Army Specialist Stephen Leon – a Chelsea native who now lives in Revere. “As soldiers, we’re not allowed to show our emotions and we don’t, but Memorial Day is our day to cry and mourn and open all the old wounds for a time. That’s what it is for a soldier, and that’s what I’ll do on Monday. After that, I’ll go to the Soldiers Home and then visit as many ceremonies as I can so I can also show respect.”
Leon, 54, has served three tours of duty in Afghanistan as a specialist, and has been in the military since 1978 – saying he knew he wanted to be a soldier every since he got a GI Joe toy as a kid.
He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with a ‘V’ and the Purple Heart and so many other citations that he can’t even find a place to keep them all.
He also has three brothers – including Chelsea Police Officer Robert Leon – who all served in the military for a time as well.
Stephen Leon, though, made a career out of the military, and his service shows through the triumphs and battle scars he carries.
However, last Friday he was at the Senior Center not to show off his achievements, but to say ‘Thank You’ in advance of Memorial Day.
His gratitude comes from the fact that – coincidentally – Leon’s unit received care packages from the Revere Senior Center through Operation Troop Support each time he went over to Afghanistan. Recently, after having met Revere veterans advocate Morris Morris, Leon put two and two together.
“I wanted to come here and thank everyone here for all the packages we got when we were over there,” he said. “I met Morris and he was telling me about Operation Troop Support’s care packages from the Senior Center here in Revere. I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the same people my unit has been getting packages from since 2008 when I first went over.’ What we see is ugly. You don’t realize what a package can do to lift a soldier’s spirits in the field. A package can change your week. There’s no music in the field or TV or radio. Any little thing you get is just a tremendous relief. They’re packages to us were such a blessing.”
And there was plenty to need relief from – especially during Leon’s last tour, which ended for him in 2011 after he was injured while stopping the attack of five suicide bombers on a sleepy military camp near Kabul, Afghanistan.
It was the middle of the night on April 2, 2011 when – out of the darkness – a planned attack came knocking at the main entrance of Camp Phoenix.
Leon and another soldier were the only ones standing in the way.
Raining down on them was small arms fire, hand grenades, rifle-fired grenades and suicide insurgents. The attack was meant to get the suicide bombers past the entrance and into the barracks of the sleeping soldiers – where five bombers planned to detonate exploding vests.
“There were 8,700 soldiers behind us and they were all sleeping in the middle of the night, so we figured it was going to be our time to die because we weren’t going to let them get to those 8,700 sleeping soldiers,” recalled Leon. “My partner got hit and I said to him, ‘Just keep shooting because if they get by us, it’s all done.’ I got blown up, but we stopped them.”
According to his commendation letter from the Army, despite being rocked by multiple explosions, Leon was able to gather himself and deliver lethal shots to the attackers and to the suicide bombers who had not yet detonated their vests.
“While disoriented from a series of explosions, Specialist Leon refused to surrender ground and delivered accurate and lethal fire which prevented insurgents from gaining entry to the base,” read the citation. “His exceptional courage, dedication to duty, care for fellow soldiers and personal sacrifice directly contributed to the successful defense of the main entry control point. His actions saved lives.”
He was originally awarded the Bronze Star for his heroism, but it was bumped down to an Army Commendation Medal. However, he said he thinks they’re going to move it back up to the Bronze Star.
Due to the injuries he sustained in defending the camp in that 2011 attack, Leon had to be hospitalized, and following that, his tour ended. He said he was never so grateful to be back on U.S. soil.
“It’s like the ‘Wizard of Oz’; there’s no place like home,” he said. “You miss the States so badly and when you see the country on the plane coming in, it looks so beautiful. I’ll never forget my brother inviting me to the Chelsea Police Station and all the officers giving me a huge ‘Welcome Home’ party. It was wonderful to be home.”
And Leon said it has been wonderful being back for the last year or so, but the transition has been hard. He said it helps to go around and thank people who helped him while he was overseas – such as the Revere Seniors – and to just keep easing into Civilian life.
“I was at such a high level of vigilance for so long,” he said. “I have to let my guard down and to try to learn to be a human being again. The transition from being a soldier to being a Civilian is a huge difference. I’m just starting to go to sleep regularly again. When you’re out there in Afghanistan, you don’t sleep. Now, those kinds of things are starting to come back to me. They call it transitioning, but I call it becoming a human being again.”
Despite that, Leon said he’s ready to go back if his unit – the 182nd Infantry – is called back to serve in Afghanistan. That is, if his body will cooperate.
“I’ve been healing now for close to two years,” he said. “I’m about 60 percent, but I’m ready to go back and do whatever needs to be done. My mind wants to keep going, but my body can’t keep up with it. I have traumatic brain injuries from the explosions, loss of hearing and nerve damage in my arms. Those were my gifts from Afghanistan.”
But Memorial Day will be America’s gift to him.