Marine Corps veteran Steve Leonard stands inside his shop at the VA Medical Center. Leonard served as a jet engine mechanic from 1996- 005 and continues to serve veterans indirectly as a mechanic at the VA in Sheridan.

Justin Sheely | The Sheridan Press.

SHERIDAN — The decision did not take long. It was August 1996 when Sheridan resident Steve Leonard, then 21 years old and tired of working construction in the Florida heat, walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office and signed up the same day.

He thought the military would help him pay for college and, if he was going to enlist, he figured he ought to join an elite fighting force like the Marines. Little did he realize at the time, but Leonard’s choice proved to be the best decision he would ever make.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said of his service. “It was a very rewarding experience I would say, and very tough, for sure. But it’s made me a better person I can assure you. It’s hard telling where I’d be without it.”

Leonard was born in Sarasota, Florida, but grew up and graduated from high school in Mitchell, Indiana, a small town best known as the birthplace of astronaut Gus Grissom.

After school, he headed to Florida to work for his dad’s construction company. He lasted three years before trading in the humidity for the sand fleas and boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.

He admits now that he was probably unprepared for what awaited him in the Marines. Sure, he was in good physical shape from his job, but the military is a different sort of grind.

“I mean, back in 1996, you didn’t have social media and you didn’t see exactly what everything was like going into boot camp,” he said. “Kids nowadays are pretty well informed of what they’re going to endure when they get into it. But it was just a complete culture shock for me.”

When he enlisted, Leonard requested a position in aviation. His father was a pilot, and planes were a long-time fascination. After boot camp, he trained and then worked as a first-degree jet engine mechanic on Hueys and Cobras, types of attack helicopters.

He advanced quickly. He picked up the rank of staff sergeant in only five years, setting a station record. He eventually became a staff non-commissioned officer in charge of what is referred to as “test cell.”

Leonard’s team received helicopter engines and tested them for temperature, vibration, horsepower and other features, he explained. As NCO, he had to sign off before the helicopters could head to Iraq or another destination.

“It was a very, very cool job,” he said.

The Marines didn’t just offer Leonard a career he loved. He also met his wife — a Sheridan resident and fellow Marine — while in the service.

The couple has three children, and family was what led Leonard out of the military.

By 2005, his wife had three young children at home while dealing with medical issues that led her to retire from the military. Between deployments and training, meanwhile, Leonard was rarely there.

“The prognosis wasn’t that great for her and I decided, to be the best father and husband I could be, to get out and pursue something else,” he said. “I was deploying and I was never really around. I worked very hard. When I found out about her condition, I was deployed in Italy, and that was one of several leaves I had from her and the kids. But that’s the only reason I’m out. I still love it today.”

Leonard returned to construction in Florida, helping put his wife through school. After she earned her Master’s in Business Administration, the family made the decision to move to Wyoming for the quality of life found here.

Now, his wife works as the supervisory accountant at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Leonard is the head equipment mechanic at the VA. He also owns a soffit, fascia and gutter side business called A-Line Seamless Gutters.

Leonard, an intelligent guy with a good sense of humor and hearty laugh, said his family really enjoys Sheridan. He is an avid hunter and golfer and is considering trying out snow biking this winter. He takes classes at Sheridan College and is a couple credits away from earning his degree in criminal justice, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. The family recently built a house in Big Horn.

While life is definitely good — not to mention busy — in Sheridan and Leonard doesn’t question his decision to leave the military, he no doubt misses the Marine Corps and all that came with it.

“I’m still not over it,” he said. “It’s been 10 years and I still wish I was in.

“I keep in touch with a lot of the guys I served with or that worked for me. And now they’re master sergeants, and I’m … not,” he added with a laugh. “But it was great. It was, by far, the best experience of my life.”

The camaraderie he shares with fellow troops and lifelong friends, his wife, a great career — yeah, the Marines definitely worked out well for Leonard, and he said he would not hesitate to let his sons enlist.

Not bad for a quick decision from a 21-year-old.

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