by C. Oscar Olson
The Call of Duty is louder for some than others. Though we all rise in the morning with tasks to complete, hurdles to jump, and goals to meet, some of us face greater challenges. Nantucket resident Rich Leone heard his call in 1979, and he has never stopped stepping up to the challenge.
At that time, a group of Iranian college students and supporters of the Iranian Revolution took over the United States embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two American citizens and diplomats were taken hostage, and the 444-day standoff between the US and Iran had begun. “This was my call to service,” recalls Leone, who had never before considered a career in the military.
Prior to enlisting in April of 1980, he worked with his family in their restaurant business. They lived in Chelmsford, Massachusetts where he graduated high school in 1974. His father, an electrical engineer, switched careers around the same time. He found success in buying and selling restaurants, at one time owning 9 locations across the state. The Cove Restaurant and Marina in Fall River, a South Shore dining destination that still stands today, was one of the family’s claims to fame.
Leone’s first two years of service were spent in schools training as an Electronics Technician, helping to operate and manage the electronics systems of the world’s most advanced ships and aircraft, as well as bases on land. Leone had no experience in the engineering field, but enjoyed learning on his feet. “My fist duty station was on board the USS Moosebrugger,” he says, a Spruance-class destroyer affectionately nicknamed ‘The Moose’ by her crews. Having never seen combat, the USS Moosebrugger was first deployed to the Mediterranean in July of 1980.
Three years later, Leone was preparing for his first deployment. The plan was 6-month cruise back to the Mediterranean, a journey that was soon interrupted. “Upon our departure from Charleston, South Carolina and about half way to the Mediterranean, we got word that the Cubans had overthrown the government of Grenada.”
The situation there had been a growing concern to the United States since 1979, when leftist leader Maurice Bishop seized power and began developing close relations with Cuba. In 1983, known Marxist Bernard Coard arranged Bishop’s assassination and took control of the government. President Reagan ordered 2,000 troops to the island where they soon faced opposition from Grenadian armed forces and Cuban militants. “My ship and the task force we were with immediately changed course and headed south to the Island of Grenada”.
Rich Leone had made the decision to serve his country at a crucial point in history. This series of conflicts combined with the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union had many people worried that the stage was being set for another World War.
“The ship I was on was stationed in the harbor of St. George about 700 yards off shore,” he remembers. “We engaged the enemy for about a month.” And then, once again, there was a call from the other side of the world. “Towards the end of this conflict, Sunni rebels had blown up the Beirut Hilton, killing 247 sailors and marines. We immediately left the shores of Grenada and steamed toward Beirut, Lebanon.”
The Moose and her crew arrived and stationed themselves along the shores of Beirut in November of 1983. There they remained and continued engaging the enemy for nearly two years until February 1985. Leone smiles, comparing the challenges we’re all facing today and providing an important perspective to remember: “It’s kind of funny when I think about all the complaining about being isolated during this Covid-19 pandemic. We had left Charleston in late August 1983, and I didn’t touch land again until our first port of call in Haifa Israel on December 23, 1983.”
In 1990, three years in to his second tour of duty, Leone was hospitalized with a serious medical condition. A botched surgery made matters worse, eventually leading to his discharge from the Navy. After a long hospital stay, he returned home to his family in Fall River and restarted his life in the restaurant business.
Some years later, in 2003, he found an opportunity with his brother’s construction company on Nantucket. Leone packed up and shipped out once again, but this time under very different circumstances.
Soon after settling down, Leone met Callie Pierce. A fellow veteran of the military, Pierce was a 20 year retiree who spent his first four years in the Air Force before switching branches to the Navy. His career wound down on Nantucket where he was stationed before finishing his work with the Navy. Pierce was also a past Commander of the American Legion on Nantucket and urged Leone to join the organization. He did, and with over a decade of membership in 2018, he decided to run for the position of Commander. He won, and a year later had the honor of presiding over the Legion’s Centennial Celebrations. Leone is ever grateful for Callie Pierce’s suggestion, “being Commander of the Legion has been a very rewarding experience.”
As Commander, Leone wears many hats. He runs the Legion’s meetings, plans events, organizes fundraisers, negotiates rent, and more. One of his most important duties is finding additional income sources to support not only the Legion and its members, but scholarships and philanthropic endeavors as well. This year for the fall, he is working on making the island’s first clam chowder cook-off a reality. Leone hopes to include not only chefs but also residents in this island-wide competition.
This year, Nantucket’s annual Memorial Day services and the much-loved parade up Main Street have been cancelled, but that won’t stop Rich and the island’s other heroes from honoring the legacy of the fallen men and women by placing flags on monuments and on the graves of the departed. Since this national day of refection will be different for all of us this year, consider replacing your routine barbecue and beer with a day of remembrance, and maybe make a donation to the Legion and support all they do for our nation’s heroes and our community.
Donations by check can be mailed to:
American Legion Post 82
21 Washington Street
Nantucket, MA 02554