Making the world a better place is what Col. Rick Leonard considers one of his highest priorities as he uses principles gained from a more than 30-year military background to enhance his passion for educating and building up civilian communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Leonard, principal of Cope Area Career Center, said the lessons he learned in the U.S. Army helped prepare him for his responsibilities in the education field.
"One, of course, is teamwork. That's very important. You have to rely on those things, including all the leadership courses I've taken," Leonard said.
He graduated from The Citadel in 1978 with a degree in education, but didn't stop there.
"I opted to enlist in the Army back in 1980. I went to training at Fort Leonard Wood back in 1980. A year later, I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, to Officer Candidate School and got my commission. In fact, I was inducted into the OCS Hall of Fame in 2010," Leonard said.
Referring to his early military days, he said, "The Cold War was back then. I went on a couple of missions down in Central America. I built some schools down in Panama and built a school in Belize. I helped build a road in Honduras. I was always interested in those types of things and always going to various trainings. I got to go to a whole laundry list of various schools," he said.
Leonard said his Army training came in handy.
"It helps with your civilian education as far as how to present, instruct, work with faculty. The other thing, of course, is the logistics and operations of running a school. The military has helped with time management and allocating resources. All those things go hand in hand," he said.
Leonard later earned his first master's degree from The Citadel in clinical counseling, an educational specialist degree from South Carolina State University and a second master's degree from the Army War College in strategic studies in 2007.
He said the focus of the last 10 to 12 years of his military career was involved in civil affairs, particularly during the War on Terror, an international military campaign launched by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 attacks.
'We started building relationships'
Leonard embarked on three tours of duty during the War on Terror, the first of which landed him in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. He served as a director of personnel with the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade.
He served in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital and largest city.
"That was really interesting because this was before things really kicked off in Iraq. All of the emphasis, of course, was on Afghanistan. We're trying to go after Osama bin Laden in addition to cleaning up what the Taliban had done. We started building relationships there," Leonard said.
Part of the relationships he built was during his time as an English instructor at an all-girls school.
"I volunteered once a week and got to work in a girls' high school. During the Taliban era, girls were forbidden to learn how to read or go to school, period. I go over there and start trying to teach English. The ages of the students in the classroom ranged from like 9 to 29. It was just a really unique situation," Leonard said.
He added, "There was no power in the school. So depending on the time of the year, we had to rotate around the different classrooms in the building so we'd have enough sunlight to come in."
He enjoyed his travels around Kabul.
"I got to go all around Kabul. I got to see a lot of neat things and different ways of life. Security wasn't as bad as it is now. Every two weeks we tried to bring in different vendors to sell their goods to the soldiers. I got out with my driver and interpreter and we'd go to all these different shops and set up for them to come to our compound in downtown Kabul," said Leonard, who also got to meet Mohammad Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's last king, during his first tour in the country.
"He had come out of exile in Italy and put back in the palace there in Kabul. We helped provide some medical treatment for him, and I got to go along with our medical people to visit him. It was interesting to hear about his story," Leonard said.
Leonard's second tour took him to Iraq from 2009 to 2010. He served as a battalion commander and worked with the 25th Infantry Division and the 3rd Infantry Division.
"That was a good tour. The current president of the University of South Carolina, Gen. Robert Caslen, was commander of the 25th Infantry Division when I was in Iraq. He was the one who promoted me to full-blown colonel when I was there," he said.
Leonard was in charge of all of the civilian affairs officers in northern Iraq.
"I got to travel a good bit from Mosul to Sulaymaniyah. There's a part of Iraq where the Kurds are called Kurdistan. They're different from the other Iraqis in that they're not descendants of Shiites. This is the other group. The Kurds are very pro-American, very friendly. It was really nice to travel all through that part of Iraq," he said.
Leonard's experiences included his encounters with the Yazidis, a predominantly ethnically Kurdish group with a centuries-old religion that Leonard found fascinating.
"It was just strange, but they're very nice people. Another trip that I found interesting was my tour of Halabja. They have a memorial there. Back during Saddam Hussein's era in the late '80s, he gassed thousands of his own people. They were all Kurds. So there's a big memorial down there," said Leonard, who also visited one of Hussein's palatial compounds that had been taken over in Baghdad.
"It's a huge area where Saddam Hussein had his family. He had his own zoo and a little playground for his grandchildren. It looked like Flintstone village out of Hollywood ... It's just amazing the amount of wealth this guy had," Leonard said.
His third and final tour landed him back in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 with the 10th Mountain Division.
"I was stationed in Kandahar city. I was director of the Regional Command South (Forward). I worked in a small compound there and worked the U.S. State Department and other agencies from the U.S. like, for example, the Bureau of Prisons, FBI and CIA. The Canadian government had an office there too," Leonard said.
He worked with Kandahar's mayor to create an open market for the people, but assassinations soon began to upend progress.
"You're working with this guy and keeping things going along and, boom, he gets assassinated. I worked with another influential guy in the region, the half brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, to try to get things done and he gets assassinated. So it wasn't promising. Then, of course, I got to work with the governor of Kandahar Province," Leonard said.
He said his work was interesting, but not without safety challenges.
"Security-wise, you had to be in a convoy when you go outside the compound. I preferred moving around in a helicopter. I felt that was a lot safer than being on the ground," Leonard said.
He recalled a prison breakout in Kandahar which resulted in the escape of approximately 200 Taliban.
"They had tunnels several hundred yards underground. Then U.S. Bureau of Prisons took over, and I got to tour that facility. Of course, they fired the warden and, in fact, imprisoned him there and got a new warden.
"It was a very embarrassing thing because the Canadian equivalent of our Bureau of Prisons was helping the Afghans run the prison. Then we took over and discovered all the tunnels and brought in one of those machines that sort of vibrates the ground and looks for holes ... and was able to find the other tunnels before they were used. It was like the Great Escape 2," Leonard said.
"There were very long days. We had, of course, nightly briefings as far as keeping everyone abreast of what was going on in the entire region. Everything was done over the computer. So if I physically wasn't at the division headquarters at Kandahar Airport, I could listen in on my computer down there at Camp Nathan Smith," he said.
"Then I got to go out and, of course, meet various Afghan people ... who were generally very nice."
'Some things you just can't win'
Leonard is proud of the work that the military was able to accomplish in Afghanistan, but acknowledged that challenges remain.
"We tried to do a lot of good in Afghanistan. I don't know if it took politically like we wanted. It was frustrating because I think Afghanistan is still the number one producer of opium," he said.
Leonard added, "It's hard to get some farmer when he's getting paid, for example, $100 an acre to grow opium, and we say, 'No, we don't want you to grow that. We want you to grow corn,' which you'll only maybe get $10 an acre. Well, economically, the farmers are going to go for the bigger crop. Not that they're using opium, but that's just a reality. Some things you just can't win."
He continued, "During my second tour in Afghanistan, it was sort of more about politics. The governor of Kandahar would get a photo-op. He'd get on a bulldozer and bulldoze a bunch of poppy fields. Well, we knew that wouldn't last."
The Greenville, South Carolina, native looks back on his military service as something he was sort of born into.
"I come from a military family. My father was career Air Force. He served in World War II and Korea, and then he flew for the civilian airlines during Vietnam. My grandfather also served in World War II and in World War I. Then I've traced my roots all the way back to pre-Revolutionary War times. So I guess the military is in my blood. Both of my sons have served in the military, both were in the Army. I've had a good career," Leonard said.
He and his wife, Lee, who reside in Orangeburg, are the parents of two sons, Zack and Nick.
"After I retired from the Army in 2011, there's also two organizations I joined in Columbia. I served a little while in what they call the South Carolina State Guard, and I then moved over to another outfit called the Joint Service Detachment that works directly for the adjutant general of South Carolina and was promoted to brigadier general in that organization," Leonard said.
He said he tries not to dwell on the tragedy of war that was, nonetheless, one of its realities.
"We went through the Cold War with the possibility of chemical war and then actually went to Afghanistan and Iraq, where we had rocket attacks and explosions and people getting killed. You don't dwell on that. You can't. You'd go nuts," Leonard said.
"As a commander, one of the hardest things is when you have to write that letter to surviving family members that their loved one's not coming home alive. That's a tough thing to do, but you try to go on the positive things like the camaraderie and working together.
"Hopefully the mission was successful and you did what you were told. Hopefully you can contribute and make not just the United States safer, but the world a better place. I guess that's the overall goal you try to have," he said.
Leonard is the recipient of a Legion of Merit award and three Bronze Stars.
'I enjoy what I'm doing'
Leonard delights in his work helping to mold young minds at the Cope Area Career Center.
"I enjoy what I'm doing. I think it's real important that you find something in life that you really enjoy. You hope you're doing the best you can. So I'm hoping to remain at the Cope Area Career Center a few more years, and then maybe move to a district-level position to help out and stay involved somehow," he said.
He hopes to one day become more involved with helping the City of Orangeburg.
"I'm on the Airport Commission now, and then maybe later on I can find some other role to help out with the city and even the county as I move beyond the education world. That's going to come to an end too as I get older. I tell anybody that it's not much about making money, it's doing what you enjoy doing," he said.
Leonard said it's a lesson not just for his students at the CACC, but himself.
"It's about dedication to duty and service. It's not always about the dollar. What can you do to help improve your community or your organizations? That's what we're trying to push at the Cope Area Career Center," he said.
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD
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