Obama Praises Medal of Honor Winner for a 'Singular Act of Gallantry'
The shooting started without warning, and within seconds two U.S. Army Rangers—some of the military’s most highly trained soldiers—were pinned down inside an insurgent compound in eastern Afghanistan.
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.
(PICTURES: 8 Medal of Honor Recipients)
Sgt. First Class Petry received the military’s highest commendation, the Medal of Honor, at a high-profile White House event celebrating his heroism on that bloody day in summer 2008. Petry's been fitted with a prosthetic hand and continues to serve in an elite unit. He is only the second living recipient of the award since Vietnam; the first, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, was in the audience for the awards ceremony.
Obama, who met with Petry and his wife and children in the Oval Office before the ceremony, told the crowd of lawmakers, senior U.S. generals, and Army Rangers that Petry had committed a “singular act of gallantry.”
“Every human impulse would tell someone to turn away. Every soldier is trained to seek cover. That’s what Sgt. Petry could have done,” Obama said shortly before placing the award around the soldier’s neck. “Instead this wounded Ranger … did something extraordinary: He lunged forward towards a live grenade.”
Tuesday’s White House ceremony kicks off several days of public events honoring Petry, whose prosthetic hand is inscribed with the names of fallen Rangers. He'll head to New York to tape interviews with anchors from the major broadcast and cable networks. On Thursday, he’ll appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Rangers who served with Petry say he deserves all of the acclaim. They said his actions during the firefight in Paktika saved the lives of several of his fellow troops.
“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.”
(FROM THE ARCHIVES: How a Medalist Is Chosen.)
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.
The medal of honor ceremony caps a long journey for Petry that began in Santa Fe, N.M., when he 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 Paktika for a rare daytime raid designed to capture or kill a high-ranking al-Qaida commander.
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 an interview before Tuesday’s event, Packard said he would have that moment in mind when Petry shook hands with the president and received the military’s highest honor.