At a White House ceremony this afternoon, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, an Army Ranger, became only the second living recipient of the Medal of Honor for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Petry lost his right hand while throwing a live grenade away from his fellow soldiers.
Petry becomes the ninth service member to receive the nation's highest award for valor in those conflicts. Until Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was honored with the award last year for his heroism in Afghanistan, the previous awards had been made posthumously. Like Giunta, Petry will be honored for actions while serving in Afghanistan.
President Obama today said the medal "reflects the gratitude of our entire nation" and that Petry shows that "heroes are all around us, they're the millions of Americans in uniform who have served these past 10 years. Many, like Leroy, deploying tour after tour, year after year."
After the ceremony, Petry told reporters, "to be singled out is very humbling. I consider every one of our men and women in uniform serving here and abroad to be our heroes."
Those in uniform "sacrifice every day and deserve your continued support and recognition," he said.
He urged that "whenever you have a chance or opportunity to thank them, shake their hand, give them a pat on the back, the job they've done because they've earned it, that's the greatest reward that any service members can get, just a simple 'thank you.'"
Petry received the Medal of Honor for his heroism May 26, 2008, when he and his fellow Rangers were conducting a rare daylight raid on a Taliban compound in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia Province.
As the senior non-commissioned officer, Petry, 31, was to have played an oversight role in the raid. But he quickly found himself in the fight when one of the assaulting squads needed extra help.
After securing a building in the compound, Petry and Pfc. Lucas Robinson entered a courtyard to take on three enemy fighters readying to fire on soldiers at the other end of the courtyard.
They immediately came under fire and Petry was shot by a round that went through both of his legs. Although wounded, Petry led Robinson to take cover behind a chicken coop. Another Ranger, Sgt. Daniel Higgins, came to help his wounded soldiers.
But a short time later, Higgins and Robinson were wounded by a grenade thrown at them by one of the Taliban fighters. Then, another grenade landed in their midst.
It was at that moment that Petry, already wounded in the legs, lunged for the live grenade to throw it away from his fellow Rangers.
"It was almost instinct; off training," Petry told the Army News Service. "It was probably going to kill all three of us. I had time to visually see the hand grenade. And I figure it's got about a four-and-half second fuse, depending on how long it has been in the elements and the weather and everything and how long the pin has been pulled. I figure if you have time to see it you have time to kick it, throw it, just get it out there."
But just as he did so, the grenade exploded in his right hand. "I actually didn't think it was going to go off," Petry said. "I didn't really feel much pain. I didn't know it had gone off and taken my hand until I sat back up and saw it was completely amputated at the wrist."
Remarkably, Petry placed a tourniquet on his right arm then reported by radio that he and the other two Rangers had been wounded and were still under enemy fire.
Eventually, the Taliban fighters were killed by other soldiers, but not before one of them fatally shot Spc. Christopher Gathercole, who had arrived to help Petry, Higgins and Robinson.
At a news conference shortly after it was announced that Petry was to receive the Medal of Honor, soldiers who had served with him praised his bravery.
"We would like to say that every Ranger would do that given the exact same situation, but you're never going to know that until he's placed in that situation," Master Sgt. Steven Walter said.
Sergeant 1st Class Jerod Staidle, who came to help Petry that day, said Petry could have "saved himself but then the other two Rangers would probably be dead." Staidle said, "He put his own life at risk to grab that grenade and throw it around the corner to save all three of them."
Petry now wears a high-tech robotic artificial hand. "I could shake people's hands today. I'm meeting people all the time," he told the Army News Service. "It feels great to actually shake their hands with my right hand."
The prosthesis even allowed him to take up a new sport, golf.
An elite Army special operations force, Army Rangers serve four-month tours of duty in the war zones and rotate more frequently than conventional forces given the intense combat operations they experience.
Since enlisting in the Army in 1999, Petry has served almost his entire Army career as a Ranger and has deployed twice to Iraq and six times to Afghanistan. That sixth deployment occurred this past year.
He continues to serve on active duty as a liaison officer with wounded warriors and plans to remain a soldier. The married father of four recently re-enlisted for another eight years of Army service.