ST. LOUIS — The decision to enter the Marines is one Leo Pendergraft didn't take lightly. He went in straight out of high school, became an expert marksman and served as the platoon's point man.
He was drawn to serve just as he was drawn to the woman who stands by his side and supports his service. It’s a love story that started when they were just 10 years old.
"I remember seeing a halo over her head when I was a young boy and knew right away I wanted to marry her," recalled Pendergraft.
They were soulmates, marrying very young.
"We were 19, marrying on my 19th birthday,” said Jennifer Pendergraft.
Little did either of them know their world would come to a crashing halt a year later. Leo Pendergraft was injured on his 20th birthday when his platoon went into Fallujah, Iraq.
"The largest battle of the Iraq War,” Pendergraft said, explaining that it was "chaos, a hard fight.”
He was injured by a suicide bomber.
“Ultimately, he was the warrior that took me out,” Pendergraft said.
"After I was blown up, I remember opening my eyes and the tragedy of feeling that it was over for me and my time as a Marine was up.”
Pendergraft recalled bleeding in the sand and being given a phone to make one call, that was to his wife. It was a call she’ll never forget.
"He called and said, ‘Have you heard? It's my legs; I've been hit and I'm going to Germany. I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’, and as his voice was fading he said, ‘I love you.’ I sat up and screamed, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!”
Despite his injury, Pendergraft was determined to stay in the service. So, he started to run again, but the Marines needed him to be able to knock in doors, carry a soldier when wounded and climb hills. It was quickly deduced he would be retired out of service.
"I was devasted and now my physical wounds weren't the only issues, now it was mental wounds and PTSD," added Pendergraft. "It was an overwhelming sense of failure and depression that was yoked around my neck.”
Leo and Jennifer have always been there for one another. She put her education on hold to be by her husband’s side as he healed. They have three children: 10-year-old Hunter, 8-year-old Gunner and 7-year-old Ryder.
Now, Jennifer is getting the chance to attend SIUE thanks to a scholarship provided to the family through Folds of Honor. She is majoring in English and minoring in rhetoric and writing.
"It's such a gift and I take it so seriously in my studies and in my GPA," she said.
"I am so grateful and thankful that this organization is reaching out and helping the spouses and children, that's what makes this different and what makes this organization so important,” added her husband.
Leo Pendergraft always will treasure his time as a Marine and will be one through and through. His final message to all of his sisters and brothers serving: