A reminder of what heroism really consists of

July 14, 2011 

Thousands of courageous Americans have gone through Fort Benning in the near-century of its existence. Through world wars, the “police actions” of Korea and Vietnam, Desert Storm, regional conflicts around the world and now the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, countless brave soldiers have displayed extraordinary, sometimes superhuman valor in defense of this country.

And too often, that valor has come at the cost of their own lives.

But even among that elite and exceptional subset of Americans who qualify as genuine heroes, few have displayed the kind of selfless courage of Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry. It was in tribute to that courage that Tuesday at the White House, President Obama presented Petry with the Medal of Honor. Petry thus becomes only the second living recipient of the nation’s most distinguished official recognition of valor in the years since the terror attacks of 2001; seven other Americans in service have been honored posthumously.

The circumstances under which Petry earned this honor leave no room for doubt about his worthiness of such a distinction.

Three years ago, on a risky daytime mission in eastern Afghanistan, Petry led soldiers in a search for insurgents and an al Qaida leader. While clearing a building, Petry was shot in both legs. A grenade explosion wounded his fellow Rangers. When a second grenade landed nearby, Petry did not take cover; instead, he picked it up and threw it. The explosion cost him his hand, and saved his men.

The now 31-year-old Petry is a family man from Santa Fe, N.M., with a wife and four children. Yet he was willing to sacrifice his own life to save his comrades from severe injury or death.

The president articulated the question many of us have asked many times about those rare people like Petry: “What leads a person to risk everything so that others might live?”

There are the obvious answers -- physical and moral courage, love of country, a sense of things greater than self. But others have those qualities and values, and never exhibit this degree of heroism. And it can’t be a matter just of circumstance.

It probably should have come as no surprise that the soldier’s humility was equal to his bravery: He insisted at the ceremony that all Americans in uniform are heroes: “They sacrifice every day and deserve your continued support and recognition.”

The word “hero” is often used casually, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that in casual contexts. But “heroes” of the playing field and heroes of the battlefield are in separate universes of stature.

Petry has reenlisted for another mission in Afghanistan. Nobody could say this man, with two war-wounded legs, one hand and one Medal of Honor, hasn’t paid his dues, sacrificed enough for this country and earned an honorable rest. Nobody, it seems, except Leroy Petry.

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