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Marine Corps Recruiting Command

Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

3280 Russell Road, 2nd Floor Quantico, Va. 22134
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Lifelong Dream Becomes Reality Despite Obstacles

By Sgt. Danny Patterson | | February 28, 2006

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Sgt. Charles Ray, canvassing recruiter, Recruiting Substation Rochester, Recruiting Station Buffalo, stands next to Nick Leonhard who overcame broken vertebra in his back to realize his dream of becoming a Marine.

Sgt. Charles Ray, canvassing recruiter, Recruiting Substation Rochester, Recruiting Station Buffalo, stands next to Nick Leonhard who overcame broken vertebra in his back to realize his dream of becoming a Marine. (Photo by Sgt. Danny Patterson)

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RECRUITING STATION BUFFALO, NY -- Since he was young, Nick Leonhard has always dreamed of becoming a Marine. He can remember wrestling with his uncle, who retired from the U.S. Army, and telling him he would beat him someday when he became a Marine.

During his senior year in high school, Leonhard enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program, a program designed to prepare young men and women for recruit training prior to their departure.

He attended monthly meetings with his recruiter, exercised daily, and was scheduled to leave for boot camp in September 2004.

Two weeks before he was supposed to ship, Leonhard hit a bump in the road that nearly ended his dream of becoming a Marine. One night he was visiting with some friends when they decided to grab a bite to eat late at night.

Leonhard and his friends sped down the road to try to make it to the restaurant before closing time. 

As he was driving to the restaurant, Leonhard lost control of the car. He remembers the car going into the air and flipping end-over-end six times before landing upside-down, crushing the roof of the car.

When the car finally stopped rolling, Leonhard knew he was hurt. Unable to open the doors, his friend in the passenger’s seat crawled through the back seat and out of the window. By the time he was able to move, his friends in the lead car had turned around and were trying to help. He heard them screaming for him to get out because the car was on fire. “I knew I had to do something even though it hurt to move,” the Ontario, N.Y., native said.

As he got out of the car, he stood up and tried to walk to the road. After only a few steps, the pain was too much to bear so he crawled away from the fire and waited for an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

The next day, he had many thoughts and worries running through his head. He learned that he had broken a vertebra and fractured two others, ruptured his spleen, and damaged his face. When the nurse told his parents that he would never be a Marine, Leonhard spoke up and told them that they were wrong and this wouldn’t stop him.
“I was mad and thought all my dreams were lost,” he said. “My parents told me not to give up and were very supportive in helping me.”

At first, the doctors wanted to put in a metal bracket to support the broken vertebra, along with a metal rod beside his spinal cord. This could have disqualified him for military service. However, the doctors noticed that his muscles were supporting the injured vertebrae better than they had expected. The doctors then decided to take a bone graft from his hip in order to make an epoxy that would repair the broken vertebra.

Leonhard spent the next few months recovering from his injuries. Starting with light training to strengthen his back, he was on the path to a complete recovery.

Once he was declared fully capable by his doctors a year later, Leonhard set out to fulfill his goal of becoming a Marine. Working with his doctors and his recruiter, Sgt. Charles Ray, he began working on a new package for enlistment.

“We knew that it would be a difficult package to submit,” said Ray, a canvassing recruiter for Recruiting Substation Rochester. “After getting all the documents, we decided to send him to the Military Entrance Processing Station.”

After hearing his story, the MEPS doctor laughed and said he wasn’t sure if a kid who had broken his back would qualify to join the military. After hearing that, Leonhard challenged the doctor and told him that he could do more pull-ups than anyone else. He completed 16 dead-hang pull-ups topping his Initial Strength Training test revealing his strong determination.

Once he passed his physical, he was ready to ship to boot camp the next day. He went home that night, said his goodbyes to family and friends, and left for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., the following morning.

Leonhard graduated recruit training as a Private First Class January 27, 2006. His parents are very proud of their son. “We are glad that he was able to become a Marine,” Dawn Leonhard, his mother, said. “We are proud that we have a son who is willing to serve his country.”

Now Leonhard is home on Recruiter’s Assistance for 30 days. His next stop in the Marine Corps will be the School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, N.C. After training, he hopes to stay in North Carolina, become a mortar man like Ray, his recruiter. He would also like to go to Iraq where some of his friends are currently deployed.

Ray noted that Leonhard is a motivated Marine and someone he is proud to call a brother in arms.

“Despite the long road he has traveled, Leonhard is very motivated and proud to be a Marine,” Ray said. “I would be proud to serve in the Fleet Marine Force with him someday.” 

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