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Leonard Shelton 1964-2023
By Johanna Buwalda
The world lost a great man, and I lost my friend in May. Leonard was a loving and lovable man with a very hurt but gentle soul, visible to anyone who cared to look.
Leonard was a proud Marine who, like many veterans, felt strongly that his and his friends' lives and mental health had been sacrificed for unjustified wars. He could never find peace around this and felt betrayed by the military and the VA system.
For over a decade, we talked daily to make sense of his life as a child and warrior and figure out how to live as a veteran and build relationships that nurtured him. Leonard had great difficulty believing he was worthy of friendship and often tried to push me away to prove that. Many years later, he thanked me for never leaving despite his attempts.
I traveled back and forth to Cleveland, Ohio, many times to care for him and help him find some joy in his life. He introduced me to getting pedicures, and we hiked, went to museums, moved him into new apartments, and went out to eat the food he so badly wanted, but never really ate.
We searched for and found his sons, whom he missed dearly; their names were tattooed on his arm. We found therapists who were willing, capable, and brave enough to take him on.
We worked on writing statements when his town tried to take his dog away from him. He fought hard to keep Rosco, and he won. In the process, he gained a community of friends.
We also worked on writing a chapter for a book describing his experiences in Iraq and Kosovo. The anniversary of "the event" in Iraq has been a permanent feature in my schedule, so I never forgot to talk to him that day.
Leonard was an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and attended the Winter Soldier event in Maryland in 2008. He later testified at a smaller version in Madison, where he freely shared his story and his experiences' effects on his mental health. Post-Traumatic Stress and Anorexia were his daily companions. Warrior Writers and Combat Paper Projects were very important to him.
These last years, Leonard found a community with friends around a restaurant, yoga, a wine shop, and more, and he didn't need me as much anymore. I'm forever grateful to that community for caring for him, and I'm so glad they enjoyed his friendship.
These pictures are from Leonard Shelton's last visit to Chicago in 2014. He loved having butterflies land on him at the butterfly garden, and in Garfield Park Conservatory, he was absolutely delighted to see how bananas and chocolate grow.
I am going to try to remember that joy.
Johanna (Hans) Buwalda is a semi-retired war trauma therapist turned full-time potter. Facebook/Instagram: @JohannaBCeramics