Second living Medal of Honor recipient of Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be recognized
Unseen militants were firing at the soldiers from a chicken coop and a wood pile. One bullet hit Sgt. Leroy Petry, passing through both of his legs. Another smashed into Pfc. Lucas Robinson, wounding him on one side of his torso. A third Ranger had just made his way to Petry and Robinson to assess their wounds when a militant's grenade rolled to a stop a few feet away from their position. Petry, without hesitating, picked up the live grenade and hurled it away. The bomb detonated, blowing off Petry's right hand but saving the life of every soldier around him.
On Tuesday, Petry will receive the military's highest commendation, the Medal of Honor, for his heroism on that bloody day in summer 2008. In a White House ceremony on Tuesday, Petry-who has been fitted with a prosthetic hand and continues to serve in an elite unit-will personally receive the award from President Obama. Petry, now a sergeant first class, will be only the second living recipient of the award since Vietnam; the first, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, will be in the audience for the awards ceremony.
"If he hadn't picked up that grenade, all three of those guys would have been wounded or killed, and there's no telling how many other Rangers would have been hurt trying to evacuate them," Army Ranger Capt. Kyle Packard, Petry's commanding officer at the time of the raid, said in an interview. "He's not the kind of person who likes this kind of attention, but Leroy did something really special that day."
Eight members of the armed forces have been awarded the Medal of Honor since the start of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but virtually all of them received it posthumously. Before Giunta's commendation last year, most of the recipients were men like Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who used his helmet to shield fellow troops from a grenade in Iraq and was killed by the resulting explosion.
The Pentagon's refusal to nominate living troops for the honor has irked many rank-and-file members of the armed forces, who argue that it results in many acts of heroism going unnoticed by the general public. Proponents of awarding the honor to living troops like Giunta and Petry also argued that it could help maintain support for the wars by reminding civilians of the caliber and bravery of the troops.
When Petry, 31, ascends an ornate stage at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, it will cap a long journey that began in Santa Fe, N.M., when Petry decided to join the Army after almost flunking out of high school.
One of Petry's cousins had served as a Ranger and Petry decided to follow him into its ranks. He made it through the Rangers' rigorous selection process and quickly earned a reputation as a standout soldier even by the Rangers' high standards.
"Leroy was the best squad leader I have ever served with, hands down," Packard said. "When we went out on a mission, I would always make sure he was next to me. He was the guy I wanted next to me in a fight."
Like many Rangers, Petry has been deployed repeatedly to the war zones. Military officials say he has served two tours in Iraq and six in Afghanistan. He and his wife have four children.
On May 26, 2008, Petry and an expanded platoon of almost 60 Rangers helicoptered into a village in eastern Afganistan's violent Paktika Province for a rare daytime raid designed to capture or kill a so-called "high-value target."
During the subsequent hours-long firefight, Petry, despite being shot through both legs, managed to pull a wounded soldier to safety. When the grenade detonated a few minutes later, peppering him with shrapnel and shearing off his hand, Petry applied a tourniquet to his bleeding right arm and continued to direct the battle. Spc. Christopher Gathercole, one of Petry's fellow Rangers, was killed in the exchange, and several other troops were hurt.
When the firing finally began to let up, troops loaded Petry onto a litter and began carrying him to a nearby field for treatment by medics. Packard and other Rangers were on a nearby rooftop as Petry was carried past. The captain remembers Petry, despite all of his wounds, making eye contact with him and raising his torn right arm to show that he was OK. In the interview, Packard said he'll have that moment in mind when Petry shakes hands with the president and receives the military's highest honor.