Matthew Leonard, born on November 26, 1929, in Eutaw, Alabama, embodied the spirit of service from an early age. Raised in a segregated society, Leonard attended Ullman High School in Birmingham, Alabama. He was not only a student but also a Boy Scout, instilling in him the values of honor and duty.
As a teenager, Leonard took on a job at a local drugstore, earning a modest $15 per week. This hard-earned income was dedicated to helping his mother meet the family’s financial needs. Even in his youth, Leonard demonstrated a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to those he cared for.
In 1947, at the age of 18, Matthew Leonard enlisted in the U.S. Army, beginning a remarkable journey that would span nearly two decades. He dedicated himself to a life of service, embracing the challenges and responsibilities that came with it.
Leonard served as a drill sergeant and trained young recruits at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. But as the war in Vietnam broke out, Leonard’s wife said he struggled to watch those young recruits, who weren’t much older than his sons, go to war and die. So, even though he was close to retirement, he volunteered to deploy in the hope of making a difference.
On February 28, 1967, in the heart of Vietnam, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Leonard, serving as the platoon sergeant for Company B of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, demonstrated unparalleled bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
Sgt. Leonard’s valorous journey unfolded near Suoi Da, Vietnam, where his platoon suddenly found themselves under a hail of enemy fire. The enemy, armed with small arms, automatic weapons, and hand grenades, vastly outnumbered Leonard’s platoon. Amid the chaos, the platoon’s commander and several key leaders were among the first to be wounded, thrusting Leonard into a position of leadership.
With remarkable composure, Leonard rallied his platoon to repel the initial enemy assault. He swiftly organized a defensive perimeter, redistributed ammunition, and bolstered the morale of his fellow soldiers. Even in the midst of battle, he exemplified unwavering leadership.
As the enemy’s assault intensified, Leonard’s selflessness and bravery shone brighter. When a wounded soldier found himself outside the safety of the defensive perimeter, Leonard risked his life to rescue him. It was during this act of heroism that Leonard himself was struck by a sniper’s bullet, shattering his hand.
Undeterred by his injuries, Leonard refused medical attention and continued to fight. He moved tirelessly from position to position, directing counterfire against the enemy, who had positioned a machine gun that threatened the entire perimeter.
Just as the situation seemed dire, Leonard’s own platoon’s machine gun malfunctioned, adding to the peril. Without hesitation, Leonard crawled to the malfunctioning weapon, determined to get it back into operation. During this critical moment, the enemy machine gun began strafing nearby soldiers, hitting Leonard’s gunner and others.
Summoning every ounce of his strength, Leonard rose to his feet and charged toward the enemy gun. Despite suffering multiple gunshot wounds, he managed to eliminate the enemy machine gun’s crew, silencing the threat.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Leonard’s indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment to his comrades and mission endured until the very end. Despite being gravely wounded, he propped himself against a tree and continued to return fire until he could no longer carry on.
His incredible sacrifice and valor were acknowledged with the Medal of Honor, a testament to the extraordinary dedication and courage he displayed in the face of adversity.