When Mike Leach of Cherokee sits tall in the saddle, every day is Memorial Day for the former United States Marines Sergeant who returned from duty in Iraq last fall.
In fact, whenever he looks at the special commemorative veterans' saddle he recently handcrafted with his dad, Bob, Leach is instantly drawn to recalling the many members of his "family" who have proudly and courageously served this country in the military.
"Mike built this saddle to represent family and friends who've served in the military," said his dad, Bob, who owns and operates the Cherokee Saddle Shop at 124 East Main Street in the heart of the Cultural and Historical District in downtown Cherokee.
"He designed the saddle during his downtime in Iraq, drew it up and came back and built it. It's a beautiful saddle and he did much of the work himself. I helped a little but usually he just wanted a little bit of advice from me."
The beautiful saddle is exquisitely detailed in referencing the meaningful military events Mike's family has experienced in their military careers.
The saddle contains the names and military serial numbers of Mike's two grandfathers - Bob's father Willard Leach Jr., and his mother Donna's father Fred Swearingen - who both fought in World War II.
There also is the familiar and poignant POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) logo, and a Vietnam Vets Memorial carved into the saddle. The Vietnam Memorial is in honor of Bob's cousin, Ronnie Lake, who was killed in Vietnam.
In addition, there is a Combat Veteran's Medal and a touching depiction of the famous Iwo Jima Flag-raising Memorial. Mike's great uncle Oliver Walker was killed on Iwo Jima.
Because he served proudly in an eight-year career with the U.S. Marines, Mike designed into the saddle a tribute to the USMC, the Corps' "Honor, Commitment, Courage" slogan, and the compelling "Semper Fi" (Forever Faithful) USMC logo.
Leach, age 25, served in Iraq with another Cherokean, Todd Elemond, a fellow USMC Sergeant. Mike returned home from Iraq last fall, and Elemond just got back this spring. Elemond, 35, has served four years of active duty and the last two and one-half years as a USMC Reservist with the Engineering Maintenance Company in Omaha, Neb.
When he's not in the saddle, or making saddles, Mike works days at Pioneer Hy-Bred International east of Cherokee, and also shoes horses.
Oh yes, he also was married in April to the former Kathy Heschke of Aurelia, who also likes to ride horses in her spare time.
Elemond and his wife, Becky, are the parents of nine-year-old daughter, Sammy. Todd works at the YES Center in Cherokee, where he and Mike struck up a friendship when Mike also worked there for a time.
Bob Leach taught Mike how to make saddles many years ago, a hobby begun out of the Leach home in rural Cherokee that has steadily grown into the Main Street presence Cherokee Saddle Shop is today.
The Leaches can design and handcraft any type of saddle for any type of horse, and also offer other tack and accessories from their location in the former Cherokee Chronicle Newspaper building.
"Depending on how elaborate they are, or what size, our saddles can range from $1,500 on up," noted Bob. "Many riders design their own and they can be pretty detailed and unique, but they're all beautiful to look at when they're done.
"Especially that one (Mike's military tribute) over there and what it represents."
No, it's not for sale, but it's always on display at the Saddle Shop, standing proudly this Memorial Day season in tribute to the men and women who serve our military and those courageous American soldiers who have gone before them.