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Lifelong love of military took this vet to three wars

At 17 years old, Gerry Leo headed from Niagara Falls out to Fort Niagara in Youngstown to look into signing enlistment papers with the Navy.

But he needed a parent's signature and his father "was not crazy about the idea," Leo recalled.

The Vietnam War had not yet escalated, but the Cold War was nearly ablaze with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when Leo had spoken with the Navy recruiter.

Without parental approval, Leo put aside the idea of military service, though not for long. Several months after graduating from Niagara Falls High School, the 18-year-old enlisted in the Air Force instead of the Navy.

"A friend of mine had joined the Air Force and he seemed to be doing well," Leo said.

It was a decision that launched 37 years of patriotic duty that took him to three wars – Vietnam, the first Gulf War and the Iraq War. And if not for mandatory retirement at age 60, Leo says he would still be serving.

"I loved the military."

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Gerry Leo, 72

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Lewiston

Branch: Air Force

Rank: chief master sergeant

War zones: Vietnam, first Gulf War, Iraq War

Years of service:  1963 -1967;  Air Reservist, 1971 -2004

Most prominent honors: Combat Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal

Specialty: chief flight engineer

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One of his fondest moments occurred during the first Gulf War when "I had the honor of serving with my son" after they were called up to active duty from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Gerry Leo served as a flight engineer on a C-130 Hercules plane delivering personnel and supplies to Iraq and other Arab nations. Anthony Leo worked as a flight line mechanic.

"We flew one mission together on Christmas Eve 1990," the father said. "I was proud."

And it brought back memories of when Leo was a young man participating in supply and repair missions to Vietnam.

"We were delivering everything from bombs to beans and repairing the C-130s as was needed," Leo recalled of his first wartime experience, which began in 1964 and ended in 1965. "For me, Vietnam was beautiful. Flying over it and looking down, you could see it had the best beaches in the world. But it was a different story being on the ground."

A few years after he completed his active duty and was back home in Niagara Falls, he returned to the service as an Air Reservist technician at the Falls air station.

"I was a flight line mechanic but in 1974 I transferred into a flying squadron as a flight engineer," he said of his role as an airborne "troubleshooter" overseeing all of the aircraft's operating systems.

Air Force veteran Gerry Leo, right, aboard a C-130 supply plane in the first Gulf War with his son Anthony, who also was activated. Flying a mission with his son was one of Leo's fondest memories.

That provided Leo with the chance to travel the world on training missions that often included the delivery of supplies to far flung military outposts and American embassies.

But for Leo, the missions that he really loved participating in were those that provided humanitarian assistance.

"We flew flood relief to Venezuela, hurricane relief to Honduras, earthquake relief to Peru and the most meaningful of all was when we flew food relief to the starving children of Somalia."

On the home front, he and his wife, the former Sherrie Temple, whom he had met in 1963 while in Nashville, were raising a family of two children, their son and a daughter, Rochele.

When both father and son were called up to active duty with the 914th Airlift Wing for the first Gulf War, the idea of the pair heading into danger raised some red flags back home.

"While my wife and daughter were very concerned for us, they were very supportive of our work in the desert and serving our country," Leo said.

Years later starting in 2003, Leo served three tours of duty in the Iraq War as a chief flight engineer. By this time, his son had completed his six-year stint in the military and had gone on to a career as a financial adviser.

So there was only one Leo family member to be concerned about as America ramped up its war against terror. And fortunately Gerry Leo made it home without a scratch.

These days he stays busy selling real estate and performing grandpa duties "for my two grandkids."

But his love of the military remains just as strong as when he first enlisted so many years ago as a teenager.

"I have no regrets," he says. "I loved serving my country."

 

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