From our Hall of Valor:
In the almost three years since he was awarded the Medal of Honor, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry has met three presidents, shared a photo with basketball star LeBron James and rapper Jay-Z, and hitched a ride with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
But as he prepares to leave the Army, Petry said he’s still the same Ranger and man he always was.
Earning the nation’s highest award for valor “changed a lot of my activities, but I think, as a person, it hasn’t changed me at all,” Petry said.
“I don’t have to wear that [medal] around my neck 24/7,” he said. “I get to hold on to it, but it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to every man and woman who has served in the U.S. military, especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Petry, who is still assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and works with wounded soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., is undergoing a medical evaluation and hopes to be medically retired this summer.
The 34-year-old, who has more than 14 years of service, initially planned to stay on active duty at least until he reached the 20-year mark. But he decided last fall it was time to get out.
“I’m having more challenges in my life, and I’m looking at starting phase two of my life, going back to college, finishing up my degree,” he said.
Petry declined to discuss in detail his medical issues, but he said the psychological challenges have “increased,” and he is having trouble with his knees and legs.
Petry lost his right hand when he threw an enemy grenade back toward the enemy, saving the lives of two fellow Rangers. He also was shot in the legs during that firefight in Afghanistan.
“My arm is just one of the injuries I had that day,” Petry said. “My legs give me more trouble.”
The gunshot wounds destroyed much of the muscle in his thighs, he said.
“That’s not one of those things you can keep training,” he said. “The muscle tissue is just completely gone. I have pain from standing for long periods of time, and my knees are starting to go out.”
Sometimes his legs buckle when he walks, and his wife, Ashley, has nicknamed it his “pimp walk,” Petry said, laughing.
Always upbeat, with a sharp sense of humor, Petry said he has no complaints.
“With the kind of injuries I had, it’s something I’m going to have with me the rest of my life,” he said.
A changed life
On May 26, 2008, Petry and his fellow Rangers from 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, flew by helicopter to capture a high-profile, high-value target in Paktia, Afghanistan.
The element almost immediately came under enemy fire, and as he and Pfc. Lucas Robinson went to clear a courtyard, Petry saw two enemy fighters about 15 to 20 feet away, firing AK47s from their hips.
Petry was hit in both legs — one bullet went through his left leg and continued through his right — and Robinson caught a bullet right on the edge of his armor, near his rib cage.
The Rangers got behind a chicken coop, a building 8 feet tall and about 30 feet wide.
Petry lobbed a thermobaric grenade at the enemy, while Sgt. Daniel Higgins ran to join him and Robinson. While Robinson and Higgins secured one side of the chicken coop, Petry secured the other.
Sitting with his back against a wall to look at his legs and radio that they were still under fire, Petry heard a grenade blast.
He yelled for his soldiers to keep their heads down and continue pulling security. As he turned to check on Robinson and Higgins, Petry saw a grenade “sitting there in the middle of all three of us.”
The pineapple grenade was only two or three feet away from Petry.
“I leaned over and threw it as fast as I could,” he said.
The grenade exploded as Petry was releasing it back toward the enemy. Petry’s right hand was gone, but he quickly snapped back to his training. He put a tourniquet on his own arm and called up a report on the radio.
When reinforcements arrived, Petry pushed them away and continued to make sure his soldiers were OK before agreeing to get medical care.
President Obama awarded Petry the Medal of Honor on July 12, 2011.
Earning the medal has given him the opportunity to travel and reach out not only to troops but to communities across the country, Petry said.
“It’s been a two-way road where I’ve gained a lot and given a lot,” he said.
He still fields numerous requests for appearances, and Petry said he can’t accept every one.
“You have to make a decision. Is this beneficial to the Army?” he said. “I love my job working with the wounded guys, but also I know it’s important to get out there and share that medal and what it represents. This medal represents the military, and I think that’s where it needs to be.”
One of his weirdest encounters was his accidental meeting with Albright, Petry said.
Petry attended the Oct. 7, 2011, memorial service for Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who died in July of that year.
The van he came in was full, and he needed a ride to the parking lot of Arlington National Cemetery.
As he walked down the line of cars, Petry noticed a Mercedes with an empty back seat. He asked for a ride, and the woman in the driver’s seat gladly obliged. It wasn’t until someone pointed her out that Petry realized he had just asked Albright for a ride.
“We got in the car and she was just down to earth, a great person,” he said. “We joked and had a good time. That was the oddest by-chance running into somebody.”
Another trip that stands out for Petry was being at Ground Zero in New York on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“That was most impacting for me,” he said. “That was emotional, and words can’t explain the emotions that were felt there.”
That night, the owner of the New York Jets invited Petry and his wife to the Jets game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Petrys were ushered into a celebrity box, where they saw former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush. Also in the box were actors Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
“I told my wife, ‘Holy cow, the Fockers are here,’ ” Petry said, referring to the 2004 movie starring the two men. “They were all really nice people.”
Later that night, the Petrys went to the neighboring box, where basketball stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and rapper Jay-Z were sitting. Their kids are “huge basketball fans,” Petry said.
“We took a picture with LeBron and Jay-Z, and LeBron posted it on Twitter,” Petry said. “Both of them were really nice guys. That’s probably one of the more inspiring things. You get to meet some of these people and hear about what a lot of them do for our military that is not publicized. It’s a good feeling.”
Once he retires, Petry plans to get his degree in business management with a minor in accounting. After that, anything is possible, he said.
He may start a business or run a franchise. He’d like to participate in a USO tour. Or he may run for political office, he said.
“There are a lot of changes going on, and I want to be able to influence change as well, and [maybe] I can do it on a larger scale, going down the politician road,” he said.
If he runs for office, Petry envisions it’ll be a short-term endeavor.
“I think a lot of politicians are great during their first or second terms, and then it’s always good to get fresh ideas,” he said. “But I’ve got a few years to plan it out and say, ‘This is where I want to go in life.’ For right now, I’m definitely sticking to my goal of getting my degree.”
Petry also hopes he’ll have more time with his family — his wife and their four kids, ages 10 to 23.
Whether in uniform or out of it, Petry knows he’ll always have ties to the military.
“The military is my second family,” he said. “It’s tough to say goodbye to the military, but I know I’m not saying goodbye forever. I’ll still be active in other ways.”
To those who continue to serve, Petry had this to say: “Keep up the fight, but, ultimately, take care of one another, not only in combat, but in garrison, as well.”