Leon Hammond laughs easily and enjoys a big one often as he talks about the life he's lived and began dreaming about when he was a kid growing up in Bozeman. “I always wanted to be a Soldier. When I was in kindergarten and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was easy. ‘I want to be a Sergeant.’”
Sergeant he is. Staff Sergeant Leon Hammond is Detachment Training NCO for the the 443rd Quartermaster Company. Hammond is now at retirement age with over 22 years of National Guard service, mostly as a full-timer, behind him. But as much as Hammond lives and breathes the military, “If I could go hunting every day, you would never see me.”
Hammond has had opportunities to fire all those great military weapons he dreamed about and became proficient or expert with many of them. “That easily makes up for the office time I have to put in.” Leon has expert badges for rifle, pistol, machine gun, and grenade - both hand and grenade launcher.
SSG Hammond was so good at weapons fire that he earned a spot on the Montana National Guard Combat Teams and went to the National Combat Matches in Camp Robinson, Arkansas from 1999 to 2002. Hammond fired against 1200 to 1500 other soldiers and ranked in the top 10 percent for pistol twice and rifle on two other occasions to earn his “Excellence in Competition” Badges. Competition calls for rapid fire at distances 15 to 300 meters for rifle, and 7 to 50 meters for pistol. During compe-tition at the National Matches, it’s not uncommon to fire 700 rounds of ammunition or more.
“I've been fortunate since shooting was always part of my family life and growing up. I got my first .22, a Ruger Single-Six, on my fifth birthday. The tradition continues with my own children.” Leon has a son, a stepson, one daughter and one stepdaughter living in Harlowton, and they all like to shoot.
Hammond is so “in to” shooting that he requisitioned small bore .22 target rifles for his unit. Members are able to shoot after hours following every drill. Leon coached them for their annual range fire qualification and after a year's coaching and practice, every soldier shot expert, three with perfect scores.
I wondered if Soldier Hammond had ever been in combat - under live fire. He wryly answered, “Never been aside from my time in Libby.”
Wife Linda does her best to tolerate Hammond’s “passion for weaponry.” Hammond has a large collection of rifles, shot-guns, pistols and knives, and especially likes old military weapons. I wondered how good he is with a rifle. “Well, I'm not as good as Quigley.” Ha!
Hammond grew up in Bozeman with a love for the military flowing in his veins. Leon's father was a Navy Corpsman assigned to Special Operations teams in Vietnam for three years and quite an inspiration. Hammond obviously looks up to his father. “He’s always had a lot of influence on my life. He is hard working and quite intelligent. A good moral influence, always stressing what was right.” Military background in his family goes back to WWII pilot, Seabee and interrogator grandparents.
Leon Hammond graduated from Bozeman High - barely, it sounds like - in June of 1984 and five days later departed for Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training. He started at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, and Fort Gordon, GA. He trained in communications and ran radio/teletype equipment.
Over the years he has gone through training in a total of nine Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). “Thanks to the National Guard, I've traveled and trained in most every state in the US and it has been a grand time.”
Leon spent enough time in cities to know he didn't want to be part of them. The same thing applied to military units. Smaller ones suit him better. SSG Ham-mond happily has been assigned to satellite units since 1994. “I want to be training with my soldiers, not delegating from an arm chair. I belong with them.”
His career in the MT ARNG moved from Bozeman to Helena, back to Bozeman, then to Libby for 6 1/2 years and lastly to Harlowton on January 1, 2001. In 1984 he was assigned, along with the rest of the Montana Army National Guard, to the 163rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The MT ARNG has gone through several reorganizations over the years. His unit never had a federal deployment until 2005, but was commonly called up in the state. “We got called on frequently when I was in Libby. We dealt with flash flooding, snow and fires. Once we were called up for State Active Duty four times, plus a three-week Annual Training, all in a 12 month period. Complaints were uncommon though – National Guard soldiers really enjoy helping others in need.”
Prior to their recent deployment, the local unit was the Battalion Maintenance Section for First Battalion 190th Field Artillery. When the military was in need of more police, the unit was deployed as part of Company A 1-190th Military Police (Provisional). The soldiers (124 of them) were sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for two months of training. Then, they were assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, to fill in for MPs who had shipped overseas - mostly to Iraq. Company A policed the base which at the time held 28,000 military and dependents. Hammond worked as supply Sergeant during his fellow soldiers' training and operation of 15 months. Company A did so well - “an outstanding job,” the Battalion Commander wanted the company's tour extended for a few extra months. But, 15 months away from home was long enough. The extension was not approved by “Big Army.”
Hammond had met and married his wife, Linda, just seven months before deployment in 2005. Linda works at the Revenue (Assessors) Office at the County Courthouse. Between the two, they have eight children, four at home in Harlowton now.
Asked about what his recent federal deployment was like, Hammond gave a rather political response: “It was exactly what you would expect duty to be like on a stateside Army base. None of us would have chosen that duty, but rest assured – the soldiers performed above standard and are a credit to the State of Montana and America.“
Deployed Guardsman were allowed to choose the unit to which they would return in Montana. All who were members of the local unit are returning. “They are fiercely dedicated to the Harlowton unit.”
Hammond returns as the Detachment Training NCO. SSG Hammond organizes, schedules, and resources training for his unit. Administration, pay, supply, readiness issues, facility main-tenance help round out his work day. Hammond is Detachment “chief cook and bottle washer.”
The new unit has 27 positions including one officer. Its mission is to receive, store, transfer and distribute petroleum products within the 190th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. The unit is “almost” ready to go, needing more personnel to fill the unit. The goal is to have the Detachment fully manned in less than two years.
The Guard unit is good for the local economy also. “If the unit were at 100% strength there would be potential for around $6,700 per month, in soldiers drill pay, to circulate in the Harlowton community. That’s over $80,000 per year. Add in catered food, motel rooms, fuel purchased, and the full-time paycheck. Even considering the fluctuating variables, the economic impact on this community would be roughly $155,000 per year. This figure doesn’t begin to address the money spent by the soldiers for personal items; this is only military pay and expenditures.” Keeping the Guard here makes economic sense.
Filling the unit seems to be the current challenge. “Retention is not a problem here. Our attri-tion rate is low because once soldiers train here they want to stay. Gaining new enlistments has been a slow process. With the current incentives being offered the recruiting is bound to pick up speed. I’m not one to see things through rose colored glasses or beat around the bush. I believe that service to this great country called America is an obligation, not an option. The military is just one of many ways to serve and, in my opinion, a very honorable one at that. This is how I view it: are you content being one of the sheep or would you rather be a sheep dog? There’s no question where I and the soldiers I train with prefer to be – barking!”
Hammond sees the Guard taking a larger and larger role in homeland security. “The Guard is MUCH better prepared to make rapid deployments than the regular army. We have National Guard Reaction Forces consisting of 50-75 personnel capable of being on the ground, anywhere in the State, within 4 hours and able to self-sustain for 48 hours. Within 24 hours we can have up to 400 personnel on the ground. I'd put the Guard up against any active duty unit. They're more motivated and can outwork and outshoot the regulars any day.”
And, that's no laughing matter.