July 13, 2011 -- Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry was honored at the Pentagon today for the heroism that cost him his right hand but saved the lives of two of his fellow soldiers.
Petry is only the second living recipient of the nation's highest award for valor in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.
President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Petry on Tuesday at a White House ceremony, at which he said the Army Ranger's service "speaks to the very essence of America -- the spirit that says no matter how hard the journey, no matter how steep the climb, we don't quit."
This afternoon, the Army Ranger was inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes at a standing-room-only event in the Pentagon auditorium that included among its VIPs Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, attending his first public event at the Pentagon since arriving two weeks ago.
A veteran Washington insider, Panetta said it was a privilege that one of his first acts as defense secretary was to honor a great American hero.
"I've worked in a number of capacities," he said, "but I can't tell you what a great honor it is for me, personally, to honor someone like Sgt. Petry, an Army Ranger whose historic actions saved the lives of other soldiers."
He added, "I often say that the greatest test of life is whether you make a difference. Someone who saves the lives of others makes a difference, and that's what you did."
At the ceremony, Petry said, "As you have recognized me today, I ask that you continue to pay tribute and never forget those Rangers and all other men and women of the armed services that have made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
Petry lost his right hand on May 26, 2008 during what his platoon commander described as one of the most complex Special Operations raids ever conducted in Afghanistan at the time. A platoon of Rangers was targeting a high-value target hiding in a compound in eastern Afghanistan.
Special Operations forces typically conduct their missions at night, but this mission was more dangerous because it was conducted during daylight. Almost immediately after getting out of their helicopters, the Rangers came under strong enemy fire.
Petry was shot in both of his legs shortly after entering the compound. When a grenade thrown by an Afghan insurgent landed 15 feet from where he and two other Rangers had taken cover, Petry did not hesitate. He lunged to throw it away from them because the blast radius would have likely killed them.
He told reporters today his immediate reaction was "get it out of here, get it away from the guys and myself. And I reached over, leaned over to the right, grabbed it with my hand, and I threw it as hard as I could, what I thought was at the time. And as soon as I opened my hand to let it go, it just exploded instantly. And I came back, and the hand was completely severed off."
Petry said receiving the medal has not changed who he is.
"It's a decoration, it's not a depiction of who I am, so I am still me," he said. "The medal is just a decoration that they thought I deserved."
But he described the medal as "a great opportunity to influence positive impact on younger soldiers, children -- walks of all life in our nation."
As a Medal of Honor recipient, he said his message would be to "never forget your fallen heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice, but embrace the living, those continuing to serve in the uniformed services and those overseas continuing in the fight."
Though he struggled with a decision about whether to remain in the Army after his injury, he is glad he chose to remain and become a liaison to wounded warriors.
"I love every minute of it," he said.
When asked by a reporter what message he had for younger soldiers about what they could learn from his experience, Petry said, "Give it your best. Always put your faith in those to your left and right, and may y'all come home safe. And thank you."