Ashley and Shaun Leonard had faced a dry couple of seasons at their farm near Canyon, Texas.
The high school sweethearts, originally from Colorado, were discouraged at their alfalfa, sorghum and triticale harvests. Farming is a gamble, and it felt like they were losing every year, Ashley Leonard, 35, said.
One night, the Leonards, who have three kids, were reminiscing about going to corn mazes and pumpkin patches with their friends on fall evenings as teenagers.
Shaun Leonard, 37, had an idea: They could try growing their own maze.
In 2023 — the Leonards’ second year with a 20-acre corn maze — they have grown an intricate design commemorating 40 years since the attack in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members.
The reason they chose that particular image? A crossing of paths with a Marine veteran who has worked to raise awareness about the sometimes forgotten tragedy that claimed the lives of 220 Marines.
In 2022, the farmers made a huge corn maze to commemorate the 1942 Doolittle Raid of Tokyo.
Marine veteran Paul “Doc” Doolittle, who said he is a distant cousin of Army Air Corps Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, saw the maze on social media. He and his son and wife traveled from Colorado to Texas to thank Ashley and Shaun Leonard, the farmers who had, with help from a maze-building service, inscribed “Doolittle” in corn.
For decades, Doolittle, 62, has been involved in a commemoration project of his own.
He served in the Marine Corps for 10.5 years, beginning in January 1981, he said. On Oct. 23, 1983, Doolittle was serving at Beaufort, South Carolina.
That was the day a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives near the barracks in Beirut where hundreds of Marines and other service members on a peacekeeping mission were sleeping.
That attack, along with other casualties in Lebanon and Grenada, means there are 273 names inscribed on the memorial to service members based in the Jacksonville, North Carolina, community who fell between 1982–1984.
Since 2008, Doolittle has embarked on a 273-mile, three-week walk around the North Carolina city every five years. His goal is to raise awareness about the magnitude of the tragedy.
“All those people, all the Marines and the sailors and the soldiers had a family,” Doolittle told Marine Corps Times. “And they shouldn’t be the only people that remember.”
“This is not about me,” he said. “It’s about the 273.”
Doolittle said he told the Leonards in 2022 he’d provide financial support to whatever maze they grew the following year.
Shaun Leonard likes learning about military history, but he hadn’t heard of the 1983 Beirut bombing until he met Doolittle, he said.
The Leonards decided the 2023 maze would commemorate the tragedy, said Ashley Leonard. The design depicts a lone sentry — a statue of whom is part of the memorial in Jacksonville, North Carolina — in front of a cedar tree, a Lebanese national emblem.
At the checkpoints in the maze are the names of the fallen, according to Ashley Leonard.
“I’d just hate for anybody to forget what all they did in the past, what all they did for us,” Shaun Leonard said. “I know it’s just a little blip on the radar of everybody that’s ever sacrificed for us, but hopefully we can just kind of peck away at it every year.”
The maze — along with a pumpkin patch and other seasonal farm events — will be open to visitors on Fridays and weekends from Sept. 30 until Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
It so happens that the maze is in the flight path of planes from the Air Force base in Amarillo, Texas, Ashley Leonard said. Last year, she noticed planes circling over the farm, viewing the Doolittle Raid maze from above. On Veterans Day, military aircraft did a flyover, she noted.
After his walk this year, Doolittle said in September, he plans to travel to Texas to see the maze that is helping spread the message about the Beirut tragedy, and to see the Leonards again.
“I owe them a debt of gratitude for this act of kindness I can never repay and know that we will be friends to the end as a result,” Doolittle told Marine Corps Times.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.