WASHINGTON – Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry could have sought cover when a grenade landed near him and two fellow soldiers, caught in an Afghan compound full of insurgents. That’s what every soldier is trained to do.
But he didn’t. The Ranger from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, who already had been shot, picked up the grenade and threw it just as it exploded.
“This wounded Ranger, this 28-year old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four, did something extraordinary,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday. “What leads a person to risk everything so that others might live?”
Obama presented Petry the Medal of Honor in the gold and white East Room of the White House for a gallant act four years ago that “undeniably saved his fellow Rangers from being severely wounded or killed.”
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Petry, a New Mexico native who now lives in Steilacoom, was a member of Lewis-McChord’s Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment – a unit Obama described as “legendary” for its exploits back as far as D-Day.
While the ceremony honored a single act, Obama said it also was a chance to honor an entire generation that had borne the burden of the country’s security for 10 years.
The president’s speech narrated Petry’s bravery during a mission in which Petry, then a staff sergeant, was grievously wounded and lost his right hand, yet maintained the presence of mind to lead his soldiers.
Petry is the ninth American to receive the country’s highest honor for valorous actions in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, but only the second to receive it alive. The other, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, was at Tuesday’s ceremony.
The room was full of Army comrades; Petry’s wife, Ashley, and their four children, Brittany, Austin, Reagan and Landon; Petry’s parents, and other family and friends.
Obama singled out Petry’s “extraordinary children” for applause, and observed that 7-year-old Landon “at the end of a long day is there to gently rub his dad’s injured arm.”
Among the elected officials gathered was Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.
“It was really humbling to be at something like that, to see this young man with kids and family who was willing to risk his life for fellow soldiers in such a courageous way,” she said.
Petry seemed nervous when he later gave brief remarks to reporters outside the White House. He thanked his family, his doctors and nurses, his fellow Rangers. He said all who wear the uniform are heroes.
“They sacrifice every day, and deserve your continued support and recognition,” Petry said. “Whenever you have a chance or opportunity to thank them, shake their hand, give them a pat on the back for the job they’ve done, because they’ve earned it. That’s the greatest reward any service member can get: a simple thank you.”
In an emotional moment during Obama’s speech, the sister, brother and grandmother of Spc. Christopher Gathercole stood up to applause. Gathercole died in the same fight that took Petry’s hand.
Petry, 31, now serves at the 75th Ranger Regiment headquarters at Lewis-McChord. He monitors injured Rangers returning home from war.
It was May 26, 2008, when he joined other Rangers in a high-risk, daylight mission in the Paktia province of eastern Afghanistan to find insurgents and a top al-Qaida commander.
While Petry and a fellow soldier were clearing a building, Petry was shot in both legs. They took cover behind a chicken coop along with another soldier.
An insurgent grenade exploded nearby, wounding Petry’s comrades. A second grenade landed a few feet away – the one Petry grabbed and threw.
His leg injuries sometimes make it hard to stand, and he could have retired. Instead, he re-enlisted and returned to Afghanistan for another mission.
Bolted to Petry’s prosthetic arm is a plaque with the names of those in his regiment who have fallen in combat.
“They are, quite literally, part of him, just as they will always be part of America,” Obama said.
(in descending order)
Medal of Honor: Awarded to “a person who, while a member of the Army, distinguishes himself or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Distinguished Service Cross: Awarded to “a person who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguishes himself or herself by extraordinary heroism not justifying the Medal of Honor.”
Silver Star: Awarded to “a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict.”
Bronze Star: Awarded to “any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the military of the United States after 6 December 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.” Bronze stars specifically given for heroism in combat come with a “V device,” which signifies valor.