After serving four months in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Leonard returned safely home to her life in St. Louis as a systems manager for Washington University.
Although she has been home for months, she cannot forget the soldiers she served with, especially the 35 who were injured in a mortar attack that hit the Corps Support Command on Wednesday. During her time in Iraq, Leonard, along with Maj. Douglas L. Gifford and Sgt. Brett Slaughter, were in charge of tracking the movements and combat of the Third Corps Support Command.
“We were fortunate that no one got hurt, but our mission was to cover the Third Corps Command and all their subordinate units wherever they went,” Leonard said.
Less than 24 hours after the mortar attack, Leonard was honored as the first female in the Missouri Army National Guard to receive the Bronze Star.
The Bronze Star is awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement of service not involving aerial flight in connection with operations against an opposing armed force.
Leonard was chosen because of her service as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 135th Military Historical Detachment. Gifford also received the Bronze Star.
“It is a great honor to be the first woman, but I know there are a lot of women in the state of Missouri that will serve their country with as much distinction as people seem to believe that I did,” Leonard said.
Leonard and the two other Missouri National Guardsmen in her unit, Gifford and Slaughter, are equivalent to military journalists. They collected information through conducting oral interviews, collecting documents and taking photographs that The Center for Military History will use for future history books and records of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Leonard was the senior noncommissioned officer in charge of logistics and equipment used to fulfill her unit’s mission. She specializes in photojournalism, but also conducted interviews and supervised videographers.
Gifford said members from their unit received this award because they were the best history detachment out of the eight that were assigned all over Iraq, and they did their job in the most dangerous parts of Iraq. They covered 2,400 miles of ground, collected 6,300 digital documents and conducted 182 oral interviews.
“Our unit recorded everything that was done, as far as logistics go, during the war in Iraq,” Gifford said. “We’ve preserved the stories from the commander on down to the truck drivers and water purifiers. Historians 100 years from now will be able to tell exactly how the force was supplied over there.”
The mission did at times risk their personal safety.
Gifford remembers getting ready to board a Missouri National Guard aircraft when a mortar round hit a building about 100 yards from where they stood.
“Crossing from Kuwait into Iraq ... I was sitting with my loaded M16 saying, ‘Now we are about to partake upon something that we don’t know the results of,’ ” Leonard said.
“When we got into the countryside of Iraq, there were children standing on the side of the road waving to us, blowing us kisses, telling us ‘We love America,’ and giving us the thumbs up sign ... but we still had to keep that high level of being prepared because we didn’t know what to expect around the next corner or the next turn,” Leonard said.
“I knew we were going into an extremely dangerous situation, and I knew we would do well if we stuck together. I just didn’t know how well.”