FORT BENNING, Ga. — Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry remembers his son, Austin, telling him he’s thinking about going to West Point or the Air Force Academy after high school. But the 17-year-old grew a little apprehensive after seeing his father become only the second living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the war on terror during a July 12 ceremony at the White House.
“How am I supposed to live up to (that)?” Austin asked.
“Well, you just live your life,” Petry responded. “I wasn’t trying to get the Medal of Honor when I was serving. I was just doing what I wanted to do.”
The Santa Fe, N.M., native, who lost his right hand while throwing a live grenade away from fellow Soldiers three years ago in Afghanistan, is back at Fort Benning this week for Ranger Rendezvous. He recounted his heroic tale Monday at the National Infantry Museum.
Petry, 31, earned the nation’s highest military honor for his valorous actions May 26, 2008, while deployed to Paktya Province with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Then a staff sergeant and squad leader, he and the unit were pursuing a high-value target as part of a daylight raid.
As he and Pfc. Lucas Robinson worked to clear the house’s outer courtyard, enemy fighters engaged the two Rangers and both were hit. A bullet had struck Petry’s left thigh, but he didn’t find out until later that it actually went through both legs.
“Miracle it didn’t hit an artery or any bone,” he said of the 7.62 mm round. “I felt the initial hit. It felt like a hammer hitting you in the leg. That was the only time I felt any pain. After that, it was all adrenaline.”
Wounded and still under enemy fire, Petry led Robinson to the cover of a chicken coop in the courtyard. He reported the contact, and another team member, Sgt. Daniel Higgins, moved to their position as Petry tossed a thermobaric grenade at the enemy, temporarily suppressing their fire.
The enemy responded by maneuvering closer and throwing grenades. One landed about 10 meters from the three Rangers, knocking them to the ground and wounding Higgins and Robinson.
Then, a second grenade came over the chicken coop, settling just a few feet from the three Soldiers. Petry instantly lunged for it.
“It was a split-second decision,” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, grab it and get it out of here.’”
Petry picked up the grenade up with his right hand and threw it. As he released it, the grenade exploded, completely ripping his hand off at the wrist. The blast also sent shrapnel into his arms and legs.
The move likely saved the lives of all three Rangers.
Despite his severe wounds, Petry stayed calm. He applied a tourniquet himself, radioed for help and continued to direct the team.
“I knew I had to stay focused,” he said. “I thought about it later, ‘Well, how would I react if I was next to some guy and just saw them blow their hand off?’ It would be pretty difficult. So I remained calm for the younger Rangers and figured as along as I’m able to stay on the radio, I got my left arm. But I didn’t feel any pain for some reason.”
Even after moving to a casualty collection point, Petry tried deflecting medical attention to other wounded Soldiers. He said he didn’t want to stop fighting.
“The mind said ‘keep going’ because I didn’t want to leave my guys in a firefight,” he said.
His body said otherwise, as he was bleeding profusely. Medics cut off his pants, and that’s when he noticed he’d been shot in both legs as well.
Petry now has a missing hand and four holes in his legs, but few regrets.
“I chose to do what I did,” he said. “A lot of our servicemen and women are going down a road in Afghanistan or Iraq, and an IED explodes and their limbs are stolen from them. I feel I got the unfair advantage of coping with it, knowing that mine was done consciously.”
He said he also benefited from his training in the Ranger Regiment.
“Every Soldier there is specially selected and they’re all thinkers on their feet, down to the lowest private,” he said. “They’re expected to do the appropriate things when in those tight situations. It’s a different breed.”
Petry re-enlisted on an indefinite basis last year and returned to Afghanistan in February for an eighth combat tour. He said he’d welcome another in any type of support role.
Fitted with a robotic hand, he said it hasn’t inhibited him in normal daily activities. He picked up golf after the incident and still plays basketball with his four children.
“I do what I can. I know I’m not going to be as good at some things as I was before, but I still get out there and try to have fun with them,” he said. “It really hasn’t stopped me from doing anything.”
Petry works with wounded or ill service members and their families as part of Special Operations Command’s Care Coalition in the Northwest Region.
Since receiving the Medal of Honor, he’s been on a whirlwind media tour. In the past two weeks, Petry appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Fox and Friends and The Today Show. The New York Mets saluted him during an appearance at Citi Field.
“It’s been great. I just hope I do my best to represent it well,” he said. “I don’t look at myself as a celebrity. It’s not about me, it’s about all service members and veterans and their families.”
And Petry has no worries about Austin or any of his children following him into the military, he said.
“The service has been the greatest thing I’ve done,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest things you can do for your nation — selflessly serve and keep us free. I constantly thank veterans because they did that for me, and I grew up in a great nation.”