In July 2011, Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry, 32, was awarded the military's highest decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his actions during a May 2008 Army Ranger (elite infantry) mission. He is one of only three soldiers since the Vietnam War to receive that honor while living. The New Mexico native, who has a wife and four children, now serves as an Army liaison, helping other injured soldiers get the benefits and services they need.
You've been in the Army for 12 years, including eight deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. What drew you to the military?
It's not a normal thing to want to go out there and possibly get shot. Why risk it? But joining the military was something I'd wanted to do since I was a kid. I remember being amazed by all those uniformed soldiers from Desert Storm. I was supposed to start college in the fall of 1999, but I wasn't too focused on school. So I walked into a recruiter's office and said, "Sign me up on a Ranger contract." I hadn't even told my parents.
The mission for which you earned the medal got pretty hairy. Can you walk us through it?
We were doing a daylight raid in Paktia, Afghanistan, in pursuit of a high-value target. We landed two helicopters full of Rangers by a compound, and immediately off the helicopters, we took contact. I was clearing the courtyard with another soldier when two guys with AK-47s flanked us and lit us up. I got shot in both thighs, and the other soldier was hit in his side, but the two of us kept running and found cover behind a chicken coop. Then a sergeant ran over to check on us. At that point, we heard a blast, and I said, "Hey, they're throwing hand grenades. Keep your head down." They must have tossed another because I looked back over at my guys, and sitting right in the middle of us was an old pineapple hand grenade.
Couldn't you guys have just run away from it?
We were still taking fire, so there was no escape. And I knew that grenade would probably kill all three of us. So I reached over and grabbed it with my right arm to throw it, and as soon as I released it, it detonated. My hand was completely gone. It was like a circular saw just cut it off at the wrist.
What was going through your mind right at that moment?
I wasn't feeling any pain, but it was such a vivid image: I could see the dust and the dirt inside the wound, the burn marks, the bit of skin hanging around the edges. I remember grabbing it just below the wound and thinking, Hey, why isn't this spraying up in the air like in Hollywood? Then reality kicked in. I reached over and grabbed my tourniquet.
Wait, you put a tourniquet on your own arm?
Yeah, we do lots of medical training, so it was easy to focus, even with bullets buzzing by. You've rehearsed it a million times. Next thing I know, a first sergeant runs up, grabs me, and says, "We're gonna get you out of here." And I pushed his hand off and said, "You're not taking me anywhere until you kill those SOBs on the back side of the building." He said, "All right, we'll come back," which I thought was tremendous on his part because we're trained to fight the fight, eliminate the threat, then return for casualties.
How did you manage not to freak out?
My grandfather, who was in the Air Force in Korea, always used to tell me, "Keep your head on your shoulders." And that's part of what separates Rangers. We're prepared for anything. I always used to joke, "Why do we practice off-hand shooting?" Well, that day, as we were running to get out of there, I had my M4 in my left hand. I didn't have to use it, but I was ready.
How have you adjusted to life with one hand?
They gave me this prosthetic hand that's phenomenal. I just picked up golf, and there's an attachment that plugs into the socket and has a length of firm rubber hose. You put the handle of the golf club into a slit in the hose, and as that hose gets closer to the grip, it tightens. The doctors have said that if there's anything I want to do, they can find an attachment to help me. I've got a full set of cutlery knives, open-ended wrenches, vise grips. I've even got a weird, claw-looking attachment that I use to crack crab legs. Still, I have to accept that there are some things I can't do. Like lead troops in combat again. I know they'd give me a shot, but I'd hate for a mechanical error to slow down a mission or be the cause of another casualty.
You have a list of names engraved on your prosthetic. Who are they?
I took the names of all the Rangers from our battalion who have died in battle – there have been 15, going back to Grenada – and made a small plaque, then had it riveted to my arm. I figured I had the real estate, so why not make it into a living memorial. Now those guys are always in my thoughts.