Medal of Honor recipient offers leadership lessons to West Point cadets
September 14, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y., Sept. 14, 2011 -- Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry's first visit to the U.S. Military Academy left many cadets wondering if more trips would follow, as they asked the Medal of Honor recipient whether his 17-year-old son was applying to West Point.
"The packet is in the van," Petry told the Class of 2012 assembled at Robinson Auditorium to roaring applause.
This was but one of many questions cadets had for the Army Ranger during his tour of West Point Sept. 9. During a small classroom discussion with about 25 cadets, one future Army officer asked Petry how a leader can best prepare his troops for combat.
"You're going to see Soldiers in your unit who may be just coming back from a deployment. Use their knowledge. Make the training as realistic as possible," Petry said.
The strongest leaders, Petry said, are the ones who talk directly and honestly to their Soldiers. That sort of straight talk can prepare troops entering combat and help deflect battlefield stress.
"Have those talks with your Soldiers where you prepare them for the worst. Hope that it doesn't happen, but prepare them mentally," Petry said.
Petry's story has become well-known since receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony in July. Rather than rehash the story of the life-saving actions he took in combat which resulted in the loss of his right hand, Petry spoke of the future -- not just his own, but the future that cadets taking on the mantle of officership will face.
"Know your Soldiers -- both on a professional and personal level," Petry said. "And get to know your NCOs. I'm not going to lie to you, some NCOs will try to run things totally, but it's a team effort and you need to work on that relationship to get things done."
Arguments will happen, Petry said, but don't let them happen in front of the troops.
"That's the worst thing you can do, and it'll bring down morale fast," Petry said.
Petry told the cadets he has no regrets and looks forward to serving the Army as long as he can. He currently works as a liaison with the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition, assisting wounded warriors and their families.
"The Army has been just an amazing part of my life, and I wish I could do it the rest of my life," Petry, who re-enlisted in May 2010, said. "The reason I re-enlisted is because I think the greatest thing you can do is serve your country."
Petry is often hailed for his own selfless service to the Army and our nation, but those who made the ultimate sacrifice he honors every day. He calls it his "living memorial," the names of fallen Rangers from the 2nd Battalion, 75th Regiment inscribed on his prosthetic forearm.
"It's hard for me to express. I don't forget the fallen but I choose to embrace the living," Petry said. "I still support all of our troops overseas and the veterans. I make it a point to thank every one of them I meet."
Petry's visit to West Point was one of several recent stops around New York which took him from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium, across town to Citi Field and inside the Ed Sullivan Theater as the featured guest on the "Late Show with David Letterman." It proved to be a rewarding escort detail for the cadets joining him at the Letterman appearance.
"He really answered all the questions we had and then some. I left the 'Late Show' filled with all sorts of information about the Army and about his life," Class of 2013 Cadet Daniel Copeland said. "I will tell you that meeting Sergeant First 1st Class Petry was one of the highlights of my life."
"To be in the presence of someone who has demonstrated so much love and respect not only to the Army, but to his brothers and sisters in arms is more than humbling," Copeland said. "He is truly a great American, and I am more than honored to have met him."
Class of 2015 Cadet Shalanda Williams also was inspired to meet Petry and to see how he's adapted to the prosthetic hand so well.
"It was never uncomfortable or awkward for him and that made me more comfortable," Williams said. "I believe it takes amazing courage to recover after all the injuries he sustained and to see him as I did today was the most inspiring thing about him."
Williams said Petry came across as a genuine person; very comfortable to be around but always conducting himself in a professional manner.
"I know it took immense patience to see and talk to many different people while he may have been physically uncomfortable," Williams said. "His ability to maintain his composure is what I will take with me and aspire to attain within myself."
What struck Copeland as most extraordinary about Petry's sacrifice is the fact he acted so unselfishly when some people would have responded instinctually toward self-preservation.
"I can only imagine the thoughts that must have gone through his head while he was reaching for that grenade. As we all know, he has a wife and children who he provides and cares for, and for him to know all of that, and still reach for the grenade, knowing he was probably going to die, is absolutely extraordinary," Copeland said. "The love he has for his Soldiers is awe-inspiring."
That was entirely the motivation behind his action that day, Petry told the cadets.
"We're like family, it's one big family and I know everything about them just as they know everything about me," Petry said. "If it was my wife, my son or daughter in harm's way I would do everything I can to protect them. It's the same way with my Ranger family."
Petry has said he doesn't consider himself a hero. That's a term for others to apply to a person and Petry has many heroes of his own. Copeland was impressed to find Petry was every bit a Soldier's Soldier; speaking to the cadets in a down-to-earth manner, swapping stories and getting to know cadet life as much as they were trying to learn about his life.
"Sergeant First Class Petry is a very humble man, to say the least," Copeland said. " Everyone knows that what he has done sets him so far apart from the rest of us, but he strives to portray himself as being an ordinary Soldier. He is unbelievably nice and was more than willing to answer any of our questions, and even had a few questions of his own for us. Just by talking to him, you can tell that there is something special about the way he is. I couldn't quite pick it out, I just knew."
Petry is featured on the Army.mil website with stories, citation and resources available at www.army.mil/medalofhonor/petry/index.html.
Photos of Petry's visit to West Point are available at www.flickr.com/photos/west_point/sets/72157627539131839/.