As they were honored by the county several weeks ago, the couple said that the Navy has literally brought them together and provided much more to their lives.
By KRYSTAL NURSE
Petty Officers Tom and Michele Leonard of Mantua Township were honored at Gloucester County’s annual military medal ceremony on Sept. 15, and both said they owe everything to the Navy and are appreciative of how much the community cares about veterans and active-duty service members.
The two met when they were stationed in Greece more than 30 years ago in Nea Marki during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Tom was in the construction battalion (“Seabees”) working with the inner mechanics as a construction electrician. Michele worked in the communications station for the Seventh Fleet as an electronics technician and met him when she was calibrating wave guides for new antennas.
“We fell in love in the Aegean Sea — not many people could say that,” said Michele. “We lived right on the seas. It was very romantic, beautiful, and the Navy’s given us everything.”
As a woman in the Navy, Michele said it didn’t bother her much because she was there with other like-minded people who wanted to serve their country while also receiving, what they call, a top-tier education.
“The people I worked with were highly intelligent,” said Michele. “The Navy schools are excellent for wherever I went. Two years straight, from nine to five, five days a week I went to school. There were state-of-the-art electronics. It takes a couple of brain cells to get through it.”
Both Tom and Michele went through the Navy’s “A” and “B” schools, basic to specific job training in a desired field, respectively, to gain practical hands-on experience with the concepts they would deal with out in the field.
What made them want to be in the Navy over the other branches of the military were their fathers, who served during World War II. Now, they said they won’t push the Navy or the Armed Forces on their two children, Joshua and Matthew, oldest and youngest, respectively.
“If it wasn’t so dangerous for my sons, I think we would’ve pushed our sons to join,” said Michele, referencing the early 2000s era. “I don’t think any mother would push their children in a wartime situation.”
“Josh is in journalism, and then Disney called and he’s now working for the mouse,” said Tom. “He loves it.”
Matthew, they said, has started a family with his wife, Erin, and they have a 4-month-old, Jack. There are plans set for him to soon take over the family business, Leonard Electric, which they used their Navy schooling for.
The two said they try to push the basic values of the military on their children, such as “manners, having the love of your country and the responsibility you have to the country to keep it on its toes to push forward and make positive changes.”
The Leonards, however, did experience the stress of missing each other and being apart in the Navy when they married, but they recognized that it’s one of the sacrifices you make when you enlist.
“It’s a lot of hardship being in the military,” said Tom. “One is deployed, one is at home, or we’d both be deployed in different places. It’s a lot of stress.”
“I cried every night,” said Michele. “You just have to get through it because you have no choice.”
Despite the separation, the Leonards are beyond grateful for the opportunity to travel around the world and meet different kinds of people they likely wouldn’t have met if they stayed in Mantua.
The couple has been to places such as Greece, Scotland, Italy and France — to name a few — and they said they met people who expressed the utmost kindness to complete strangers.
“It broadens you to travel because you get to meet people unlike yourself,” said Michele. “You also get a sense people are people no matter wherever you go. It doesn’t matter what country they’re from. You all want the same things.”
They said if anyone is unsure of what to do with their lives, to consider enlisting in the military.
“The old part about having someone scream in your face during bootcamp — that’s real,” said Michele. “They do tear you down, but they build you back up again and the foundation they give you is fantastic.”
As they head on to 37 years of marriage, the two reminisce on what they’ve been through in the Navy and are happy for the positive effect it has on their lives.
“I absolutely loved my time and the people I met,” said Michele. “One of the people I met was me and I liked me. I think that had a lot to do with the travel and you can really find yourself. I found quite a few things that I hold dear to myself.”