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Soldier is Army's 'Special' Hometown Recruiting Assistant

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C., April 15, 2005 – Through a homemade music video he produced, Army Spc. Ryan Leach showed ROTC students at Wando High School here a world most will never see - that of being a soldier serving in Iraq.

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Army Spc. Ryan Leach talks to Air Force ROTC students at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, S.C., about his tour of duty in Iraq. Leach visited his former high school as part of the Army Special Recruiter Assistance Program that allows Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans to work at hometown recruiting stations to talk about their experiences. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

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His production mostly shows soldiers playing pranks on each other, having fun and smiling while interacting with the Iraqi people -- scenes not often seen in the news media.

In April 2004, Leach completed a yearlong tour in Iraq, serving with the 545th Military Police Company from Fort Hood, Texas. The unit was stationed at Camp Liberty, just outside the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Leach explained to the students that his time spent in Iraq was some of the best in his military career. And though now safely back home, he said, he sometimes longs to be back there.

"I feel like I'm supposed to be over there," he explained. "That's been my job for the past year, and now I feel like I've got nothing to do. Part of me doesn't miss Iraq, but part of me misses the camaraderie, the excitement and the sense of purpose for the mission."

That is, perhaps, the message the Army wanted to send to potential soldiers when the Special Recruiter Assistance Program started a year ago.

The program allows Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans up to two weeks of temporary duty at a hometown recruiting station to talk to their communities about their experiences in the war.

Last week, Leach was working at the Mount Pleasant Army Recruiting Station, where he has become a hometown hero of sorts, traveling through out the community and talking to friends and students to give them a soldier's perspective of what the Army and duty in Iraq really are all about. He threw out the first pitch for the opening home game of the minor league Charleston River Dogs, a farm team for the New York Yankees, where he was announced as an "American hero." He also is expected to be interviewed for the local newspapers about his combat experiences.

At Wando, his alma mater, he started the school's first Air Force ROTC honor guard program and also served as a student flight commander his senior year. He has become a regular guest speaker to ROTC students.

The students quickly took notice of his desert uniform, asking him about the large 1st Calvary Division patches on his shoulders. One is his unit designation, the other is from serving with the division in combat, he explained.

And after seeing his video, the students had more questions about life in the military and duty in Iraq. "Did you ever have to sleep on rocks?" one asked.

"I tried never to sleep on the ground; my bed of choice was on top my Humvee. It was always nice and warm," he replied.

Another student wanted to know what he ate in Iraq. "Cordon bleu, T-bone steaks, pork chops, fried chicken," he answered.

Asked if he'd ever been shot or shot at, Leach smiled and rubbed his hand across his chest. "I have no bullets holes in me," he said.

Leach told the students his military police unit conducted more than 300 missions while in Iraq. One of his primary missions as a protective service agent, he said, was to help escort the division's assistant commander, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, and to keep him safe.

"Whenever we got shot at or attacked, it wasn't really our protocol to turn and face the enemy," he explained. "We needed to get the 'big guy' out of there as soon as possible to make sure he's safe. So we basically tucked tail and ran -- and I'll tell you I really didn't have a problem with that."

The students laughed.

At least one student was interested enough to wonder how well the Army pays. "The money is not great, but I'm not hurting," Leach said.

In fact, Leach told the students that while he was in Iraq, he saved more than $14,000, paid off his Jeep, and bought new furniture for his apartment and a new drum set.

Some questions the students asked of Leach are the kind he can't always answer, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Alphonso Clark, a recruiter at the Mount Pleasant station. He said Leach brings to his recruiting station a "knowledge and experience" that he lacks when talking to potential recruits.

"He can tell you stories about the war that I can never tell, because he's been there," Clark explained. "When we get questions about the war, I don't know what to say, because I haven't been there. But we take a young man like him, and he's got all the answers, all the stories in the world. He even answers questions that I have," he added. Though Leach told the students he doesn't plan a military career, he told them the Army has given direction to his life.

"The one thing I will say to any high school student is the beautiful thing about the Army is that it gave me five years to figure out what I wanted to do in life," he said. "And what I suggest to them is the Army gave me a chance to get out there, take some time and see the world; to be a part of something bigger than myself."

Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Bartels, who heads the school's ROTC program, said he hopes that message gets across to his students.

"The students can relate to Ryan much better than they can relate to me," he said. "My experiences in Vietnam -- long before they were born -- mean nothing to them. But when they see someone close to their age who has gone through high school and made a success out of the Army and gone on to serve their country, and now knows what he wants to do in life, that means a lot.

"Ryan has matured a lot," he continued. "He's got his head on straight. He knew what he wanted to do and made his decision early in life, and that decision was to serve his country."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChelsey Smith, a 20-year old sophomore at the College of Charleston, talks with former high school friend Army Spc. Ryan Leach about his experience in Iraq at a Mount Pleasant restaurant. Leach is home on duty as part of the Armys Special Recruiter Assistance Program, and has talked with many of his friends about the military. Smith says Leach convinced her the Army would be a good way to help pay for her college. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA benefit of the Army Special Recruiter Assistance Program is that when soldiers are not on duty they can spend time with family. When Army Spc. Ryan Leach returned home to Mount Pleasant, S.C., he spent lots of time off duty with his mother, retired Air Force first sergeant Teresa Blackmon. Here, they spend the afternoon in downtown Charleston. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Spc. Ryan Leach takes a helicopter flight while on duty in Iraq with the 545th Military Police Company, Fort Hood, Texas. Leach recently returned to his home Mount Pleasant, S.C., as part of the Army Special Recruiter Assistance Program where he spent two-week talking people in the community, especially students, about his experiences. Courtesy photo  
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