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Berkley American Legion unveils monument honoring fallen soldier

As hundreds of military personnel, patrons and media members gathered April 27 in front of the Berkley American Legion Post 374 on 12 Mile Road, all attention was focused on a yet-to-be-unveiled monument draped with an Army-green parachute of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Legion member Dale GoodCourage spoke about remembering those who lost their lives for the freedom of many, as several eyes turned toward Sarah Leach, the widow of fallen U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Leach, who was killed June 26, 2012, while on deployment in Afghanistan.

Matthew Leach was a 29-year-old Ferndale resident who enlisted in the Army in 2003 and performed two tours of duty in Iraq. Last summer, he was part of the Army Reserve’s 1/334th Regiment, 1st Brigade, 104th Division based in Fraser during his third deployment.

An honorary member of the Berkley Legion, the monument that was unveiled was dedicated to him.

While Leach’s wife, mother and friends gathered around the monument, it was a 17-month-old boy in a stroller who might benefit the most from the Battle Cross Memorial.

Jack Leach was born Nov. 28, 2011, and was 7 months old when his father died.

“I think this is really good since he won’t really remember his father,” Sarah Leach said. “He will be able to come here and be proud and see what his dad did.”

Legion members held flags surround the building’s parking lot as several military divisions and public safety departments paid their respects to Leach. Friends and loved ones were given dog tags to place on the monument when they so choose.

Sarah Leach wasn’t afraid to show her emotions and neither was her mother-in-law, Matthew’s mother, Wendy Sawyer. As Jack sat in his stroller unaware of what was going on around him, Sawyer said she knows it will be something he will appreciate as he gets older.

“I think this monument gives us more permanency of Matthew in our lives, and for his son to be able to grow up and come here when he wants to, he can have his father close to him,” she said. “Matthew was a good friend — he made the best out of the worst. He was not a complainer and he was very passionate in his beliefs and followed through.

“As a healthy American male, he wanted to serve his country.”

Peter Fulton is a friend of the family and one of the men who helped take the parachute off to unveil the monument. Fulton’s wife grew up with Leach and his wife, and while he only knew Leach for about a year before he died, Fulton said he was more than happy to be involved in the monument ceremony.

“It is really touching; it has been almost a year since Matt died and it is still just as emotional as it was when we first found out,” Fulton said. “I think the hardest thing about it is his son was so young when he passed and he will miss so much of Jack’s life. Growing up without a father, I think (Jack) will eventually appreciate this monument and that this is a sign of what his father gave to this country.”

The Battle Cross Memorial is similar to many others like it — a pair of military boots with a rifle between them and a helmet resting on top of the gun. But it is also different in that Sarah Leach handed over her husband’s boots and helmet to sculptor Stanley J. Watts in Utah, who modeled the monument’s boots and helmet off Leach’s real ones.

An extra pair of boots were also replicated and placed under a bench in front of the memorial called Jack’s Bench. One of the boots under the bench has “Dad” inscribed in it, while the other reads “Jack.”

“I think this is beyond an honor for us to do; it is a golden privilege,” GoodCourage said of the Legion helping to raise the money to have the monument made. “Matt is buried in Holly, so Jack won’t always be able to go there, and this bench is his. Anytime he wants to come forward, he has the opportunity to do that.

“If it was just for that reason, it was all worth it.”

The monument will hold special meaning to others, as well. Matthew Leach was Sarah’s first kiss and they graduated Ferndale High School together in 2000 after having every class with each other since first grade. For his mom, and many others, Leach was a hero.

But GoodCourage and his fellow Legion members want other families and children who have lost loved ones in battle to come to the monument and reflect, as well. It is a dedication to all who served, GoodCourage said, that they will not be forgotten.

“This Battle Cross Memorial is more than a decoration — it is a symbolic representation of a story of a life and of memories lived,” GoodCourage said. “To Matthew, we say welcome home and thank you for a job well done.”