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Brothers in arms, not only on the battlefield

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Marelise Wood
  • 352nd Special Operations Group
A 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron master sergeant was awakened by a phone call early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2010 with sad news about a friend and coworker.

Master Sgt. Daniel Leonard sustained a life-threatening heart attack. 

Still battling disbelief, Master Sgt. Jener Tiongson got himself in gear and rushed to be by the family's side, but a heart attack didn't seem to go hand-in-hand with the happy-go-lucky, laid-back person he knew.

As a part of the special operations community, Sergeant Tiongson prides himself on upholding the tenets of brotherhood. Brothers protect each other, but in this case, there was no way he could protect Sergeant Leonard from his body's own rebellion.

"I took his wife to the hospital," said Sergeant Tiongson. "I wanted to see for myself just how serious the situation was before I got everyone spun up. Once the doctor came out and explained what happened, I immediately notified (his) first sergeant."

Sergeant Tiongson's call launched a rapid chain of events. Word spread quickly throughout the unit. By the end of the day, squadron leadership had visited Sergeant Leonard in the hospital and began coordination of a 24-hour vigil.

"Initially, people who were close to him sat with him in shifts, then a list grew throughout the entire squadron. People who didn't even know him stepped up," said his supervisor, Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Thomas. "On top of that, spouses were getting together and visiting his wife to provide support."

The immediate outpouring of support was humbling to Sergeant Tiongson.

"When I showed up for work the next day, the squadron was already in full swing," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. It was like they were preparing for some kind of war. It was amazing. "

Meals were being delivered to the family, squadron members were constantly checking in with them, and everyone waited hoping for a happy ending.

Sergeant Leonard's hospital stay lingered into Thanksgiving. He required a heart transplant, and his options were limited in the United Kingdom. He needed to go back to the United States.

The unit attacked this new development with fervor.

Master Sgt. Todd Westhaver, 352nd Special Operations Group, agreed to be the medical escort. He visited Sergeant Leonard in the hospital more than once and knew the gravity of the situation.

"He is five or six years older than I am, so seeing him in that hospital bed made me think about my own mortality," said Sergeant Westhaver. "I said to myself, if I were in that bed, I would hope somebody would be willing to help me out. It was the right thing to do, and I knew I would be able to take care of him."

Getting Sergeant Leonard transferred required extensive coordination. Sergeant Westhaver became the orchestrator, ensuring all the agencies involved were on the same page.

"Between the Special Operations Command Care Coalition, Air Force Special Operations Command's Wounded Warrior program, 48th Medical Group and the 352nd SOG medical element, there were so many people who made this thing happen," said Lt. Col. Anthony Babcock, 352nd SOMXS commander.

As Sergeant Westhaver worked on getting Sergeant Leonard transported to a U.S. hospital, the family prepared for a permanent change of station move so they could be by his side.

Volunteers from the unit helped pack the family's home, took care of the cleaning and inspection, shipped their vehicle and assisted with out-processing.

"Usually, the member has to be present to sign certain things, but taking the situation into consideration, both bases (RAFs Lakenheath and Mildenhall) came together and were very helpful and made exceptions," Sergeant Thomas said.

Sergeant Leonard made it safely back to the U.S. shortly after Thanksgiving and was admitted to Duke University Hospital.

"Sergeant Westhaver became the focal point for communication with the unit," said Colonel Babcock. "He was sending daily updates on how Sergeant Leonard was doing and finding a house for the family so when they arrived they could get settled."

In less than two weeks, a heart became available and Sergeant Leonard underwent heart transplant surgery. His family arrived from the U.K. a few days later.

"I don't think you could credit any one individual," said Sergeant Tiongson. "It was a whole process of helping the member and his family transition to where they are now."

In a little over two months, the unit faced a trying situation head on. A brother was in need and the response was overwhelming. From providing more meals than Sergeant Leonard's wife could fit in her refrigerator to making sure their brother didn't wake up in the hospital without a familiar face near, they were there.

A promise of brotherhood had been made, and the unit delivered. His brothers-in-arms delivered.