When Army Sergeant First Class Leroy A. Petry receives the Medal of Honor from President Obama next month, the Santa Fe resident will have to make sure the batteries are recharged for the prosthetic right hand he extends to friends and strangers alike.
Although custom prohibits medal winners from speaking publicly in advance of their receipt of the honor, three of Petry’s Army Ranger comrades held a news conference in Seattle Thursday to recount his extraordinary heroism and selfless sacrifice in the line of duty.
“You see heroes a lot in the combat zone,” said 1st Sergeant Steven Walter, an officer who served with Petry, “but this stuck out because he absolutely saved lives.”
On the afternoon of May 26, 2008, then-Staff Sergeant Petry was the senior non-commissioned officer on site in Paktia province, about sixty miles south of Kabul, as the 75th Ranger Regiment conducted a daytime helicopter assault on a set of buildings believed to house a dozen or more terrorists. Petry did not have to be present for the raid with his fellow soldiers, but “saw that they needed help and made a conscious decision to go in there,” recalled Sergeant First Class Jerod Staidle.
The outer structures were easily cleared, and the Rangers zeroed in on the targeted building. Petry and Private First Class Lucas Robinson were moving from an inner courtyard area to an outer one when two terrorists, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, opened fire. Robinson was hit in his side plate. A separate round struck Petry and penetrated each of his legs.
At that point, the two struggled to take cover behind a chicken coop situated to the northwest of the targeted building. A third man, Sergeant Daniel Higgins, ran to join them, while the wounded Petry managed to lob a grenade at their attackers.
“You could hear the firefight, or the contact that was taking place, with second platoon,” recalled Master Sgt. Reese Teakell.
“We exchanged gunfire with [the terrorists] several times,” said Walter. “We threw multiple grenades, trying to clear the back corner area. There was no way to do it without completely exposing ourselves.”
A fourth American soldier, twenty-one-year-old Specialist Christopher Gathercole of California, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head during the operation.
Pinned down behind the chicken coop and awaiting help, Petry, Robinson, and Higgins suddenly saw a grenade land on the ground – right in front of their eyes. Petry, wounded in both legs, didn’t waver: He grabbed the grenade with his right hand and threw it back at the enemy. But it detonated just as he let go and amputated his right hand on the spot.
Still, the act of valor had saved his life and those of his comrades.
"It was a threat and that he did not consider the long-term repercussions,” said Teakell. “So without hesitation, he did what he could to neutralize that threat by grabbing [the grenade] and throwing it away.”
Walter said Petry did not have time to think before taking the life-saving action, then added with a laugh, “If he did have time to think about it, he definitely wouldn't have used his right hand. That's his shooting hand.”
At the moment, however, there was little to laugh about. Having just lost his right hand, Petry applied a tourniquet to it and radioed for help. “Hey, my hand is gone,” he said. Walter replied that backup was on the way. “When I got to him,” recalled Staidle, “he was basically sitting up with his back propped up against the wall of this small chicken coop building….He remained cognizant of what was going on. He was yelling at the medic to loosen up the tourniquet on one of his legs, because that was what was the most painful to him. And he was still giving directions to guys, ‘Hey, make sure you do this,’ when they were putting dressings on his legs, and telling guys, ‘Hey, go pull security; don’t just stand there.”
All of the terrorists on the scene were killed by U.S. forces, and all of the American survivors of the battle credited Petry with saving their lives.
Robinson and Higgins have since both left the Army to attend college. Petry remains in the service, and his fellow Rangers said he plans to continue his career in an Army uniform. The married father of four has taken part in 5-kilometer races and walked in a 20-mile march for his old unit. “He's been determined,” Staidel said, “to keep Rangering as much as possible.”
At the White House ceremony where Petry will receive the Medal of Honor on July 12, he will become only the second living veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive the military’s highest honor.