By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 12, 2011 — President Barack Obama today awarded the country’s highest military honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, an Army Ranger who was shot in both legs and had his hand blown off while saving his fellow soldiers during a firefight in Afghanistan.
Petry became only the second living veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to receive the Medal of Honor, which Obama presented during a White House ceremony attended by Petry, his wife and four children, and more than a hundred of his family members, mostly from his native New Mexico.
Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, Army Secretary John M. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey also attended the ceremony, as did the members of the legendary Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, with which Petry served.
Calling Petry, 31, “a true hero,” Obama recounted how the soldier was on his seventh combat deployment in Afghanistan on May 26, 2008, when he took part in a high-risk daytime operation to capture an insurgent leader in a compound in Paktia province, near the Pakistan border.
As helicopters delivered Petry and the other Rangers into the area, they were met with heavy automatic weapons fire. Petry and Sgt. Lucas Robinson were wounded as they moved to secure a back courtyard. The two found cover behind a chicken coop and were joined by Sgt. Daniel Higgins, a team leader, who was assessing their wounds when an enemy grenade injured Robinson and Higgins.
Two more Rangers, Staff Sgt. James Roberts and Spc. Christopher Gathercole, came to help just as another grenade was lobbed at the unit.
“Every human impulse would tell a person to turn away,” Obama said. “Every soldier is trained to seek cover. That’s what Sergeant Petry could have done.” Instead, he said, Petry did something extraordinary: he picked up the grenade to throw it back.
“What compels a person to risk everything so that others might live?” the president asked. He said the “roots of Leroy’s valor are all around us” in the presence of his parents, four brothers, and other family members. Obama said Petry answered the question while meeting with him before the ceremony, saying that his fellow soldiers are his brothers, and he protected them just as he would his family.
“With that selfless act, Leroy saved two of his Ranger brothers, and they are with us today,” he said.
Petry, shot in both legs by assault-rifle fire, picked up the grenade to throw it back at the enemy, and it detonated, amputating his right hand. Still, Obama said, Petry “remained calm, put on his own tourniquet, and continued to lead, even telling medics how to treat his wounds.”
Today, Petry has a small plaque attached to his prosthetic arm with names of the 75th Regiment’s fallen, including Gathercole, who was killed in the operation for which Petry was honored. Obama paid tribute to Gathercole’s family at today’s ceremony.
“Leroy Petry shows us that true heroes still exist, and they are closer than you think,” the president said. “There are heroes all around us. They are the millions in uniform who have served for the past 10 years.” They are the force behind the force, the president added, citing Ashley Petry, who kept their family “Army strong” while her husband was deployed.
Petry, who enlisted in 1999 and also served two deployments in Iraq, could have retired with honors. Instead, Obama said, he chose to re-enlist indefinitely, and recently completed his eighth deployment in Afghanistan, despite continuing to struggle with his wounds.
“His service speaks to the very essence of America: no matter how hard the journey, no matter how steep the climb, we don’t give up,” the president said.