Scars and stripes — Captain William F. Leaumont

Published 10:45 pm Saturday, January 10, 2009

“Anytime you are exposed to combat you come back with emotional scars,” said William F. Leaumont of Picayune. In his 22 years of devoted service to his country through the United States Air Force, this local man faced more than 100 combat missions from the air, indeed earning his scars — and stripes.

Hailing originally from Covington, La., Leaumont relocated to Picayune in 1956, after graduating from high school. While living locally, he made the decision to enlist in the military.

During his service, the Air Force sent Leaumont to school. He earned his bachelor of arts degree from Louisiana State University in 1966 in foreign language and he also earned a master of arts degree from Ball State University in 1976 in management of public services. This makes him, as the youngest of 13 children, the only one in his immediate family to have gone into the military and to have earned a degree.

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The Air Force gave Leaumont the room he needed to grow and he slowly and steadily worked his way through the ranks, ultimately distinguishing himself as Captain, his highest ranking. Along the way he earned himself numerous awards and medals for his courage and bravery during the Vietnam War.

For his part in the war, Leaumont said he was not a pilot, but a mission intelligence supervisor. He has under his belt an excess of 2,000 flying hours in that area, flying Aerial Reconnaissance for targeting purposes.

One of his proudest achievements is his collection of Air Medals. “The Air Medal is the highest award I’ve received in my 22 years in the Air Force and I have seven of them for my work in Vietnam,” he said.

Between 1956-1978, he earned a host of additional awards, including: 2 Air Force Commendation Medals; Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, with a V for valor in combat; Army Good Conduct Medal, 2 bronze loops; National Defense Service Medal; Vietnamese Service Medal, 4 bronze campaign stars; Vietnam Campaign Medal, Air Force Longevity Ribbon, 2 bronze oak leaf clusters; Expert Marksmanship Ribbon and American Spirit of Honor Medal, not worn on uniform.

Along the way, Leaumont earned a few “emotional” badges from his service as well, such as his aversion to loud noise and his fear of crowds. He also said because he spent so much time flying for a living, he has little to no desire to leave his home here in Picayune.

“I cannot explain to you the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are going off to war. A lot of the bravery you hear about, I believe is spurred by fear. Men will do remarkable things to save themselves and others but it’s a horrible feeling to go and not know what lies ahead. The pit of your stomach is tied in knots because you don’t know what you’re going to face,” he said.

“I was blessed to return from Vietnam with no injuries except for Agent Orange exposure to the skin,” he continued, but as he did so, it quickly became apparent that he was wounded in the war. A rather large and gaping hole was left in his heart. It still festers guilt and bleeds grief when he recounts the story of some tiny orphans lost forever to a vicious war.

He told his somber story: “I had one very, very heartbreaking experience while I was there and it still haunts me. I have nightmares about it.

“Our air crews, since we were staying up [in the plane] for 19-20 hours at a time, were provided in-flight lunches, and they always gave us more lunches than we could consume, so we decided…

“There was a small orphanage northwest of the base, up in the high country, it was about an hour and a half jeep ride — and you know, my mind, I can’t remember the name of the orphanage, I guess my mind has blocked it out, and there was not a village around it that I can recall. There was some Vietnamese villages nearby but this [orphanage] was run by some Catholic nuns. Of course they had a small chapel there that a priest would come by once a week to conduct services.

“I remember about 15 or 16 small orphans there all under the age of five. So we had the bright idea, since they were starving, to save our in-flight lunches and take them to them. The last time we went to take some more supplies to them, the Vietcong had come in and slaughtered all of those children… and burned the church. So then we felt guilty that it was probably because they saw American supplies that they considered those nuns to be American sympathizers.”

Leaumont talked about 24/7 rapid machine gun fire while trying to sleep, mortar and rocket attacks on incoming and outgoing flights and the loss of a best friend in the chow line to a suicide bomber (a line Leaumont was also standing in), but it was only when he recounted the tale of those tiny orphans that his emotions got the best of him.

“A tragedy… what a tragedy. All of us carried that guilt with us…”

Leaumont took a breathe and told stories of some lighter moments, such as trading cases of leafy vegetables for expensive and coveted commodities. He talked about air force base chaos resembling armies of ants only to be completely organized in combat, later.

Upon his retirement from the Air Force, Leaumont returned to Picayune and his family. He is married to Jerolyn Leaumont and is a father of four, two boys and two girls. He then held a few different civilian jobs which includes serving as a substitute teacher in the Picayune School District. He does volunteer work with his church, St. Charles, and belongs to four different Veterans groups within Pearl River County.

Leaumont said, “I am proud to be an American and a citizen of Picayune.”