by Eric Dehm
Cliff Leonard of Jacksonville, Florida knows the cost of war all too well.
As an infantryman in the Marine Corps, Leonard saw combat in Vietnam and all of the horror, pain and loss that comes with it. When he started seeing Marines and Navy Corspmen coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq in flag-draped coffins, Leonard remembered his time dealing with death from battle.
“I felt like I felt when I went over there,” Leonard tells ConnectingVets.com. “I was afraid for them, hoped they would all come home… knowing that many wouldn’t and I think it bothers anybody that’s been in combat to see others go off.”
Leonard, like many other veterans, decided to do something to help the families dealing with that incredible sense of loss he was so familiar with. So he put a particular skill he had gained over the years to use… the art of sculpture.
“I’m a fair sculptor,” Leonard modestly says. “I can’t make the piece look just like a photograph and that’s what I worry about. I have one little snippet of this man to try to make a 3-D model of what he was and that’s a difficult task whether you’re a good sculptor or a not-so-good sculptor.”
Contrary to what he says, Leonard is a good sculptor, albeit one who took up the art form later in life.
“I started in earnest probably 15 years ago,” Leonard says. “It was basically therapeutic for me. I had some medical problems, and kind of wanted a change in life you might say, and saw someone here in town that had done some sculptures and I called them and said, ‘teach me how,’ so that’s where it started.”
The lessons and training Leonard received allowed him to create a clay-sculpted, bronzed bust to present to the family of one Marine from Jacksonville, and while Leonard was worried of what they’d think of his gift, the family was incredibly appreciative and word began to circulate.
Now, Leonard is working towards a goal of offering a bust to the family of every fallen Marine and Corpsman from Florida. It is a long and arduous process, each bust taking about two months to create, one he says is made worth it by the reactions of the family members when they see the face of their loved one in his work — reactions he remembers all with an equal level of fondness.
“When you ask that question, about 35 or 36 families flash across the sky,” Leonard says. “Just a touching thing, at least it is for me. Very emotional. There’s not one that sticks out, you just enjoy seeing them enjoy the piece. Touching it, hugging it, kissing it.”
Leonard says he has had families from outside of Florida reach out to him about creating a bust of their fallen loved one, but he says it’s just not possible considering the time restraints.
“To have to say ‘no’ is very difficult,” Leonard says. “I wish I could do ’em all, but even if I could do one a day, it would take years to finish them all.”
The sculptor holds out hope that others will join him in creating these keepsakes for the families. But in the meantime, he says he will continue his mission of providing them to the families of his home state. A process that’s emotional for him and can lead to difficulty for the families in choosing whether to keep such a lifelike representation of their loved ones in their homes.
“Occasionally they’ll tell you they don’t know if they can keep it. One said that she may wind up letting the husband, they were divorced, but she called me later and said she saw it the next morning and hugged it and kissed it… and said she would keep it.”
Leonard says that whether the families decide to keep the busts or not, he considers it an honor to work on them and will continue to do so until his mission is complete.
Check out more of Leonard’s work here.