Medal of Honor recipient aided by prosthetics brings help, hope to others
October 11, 2012
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Sept. 28, 2012) -- After President Barack Obama placed the Medal of Honor around his neck at the White House last summer, Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry reached out to shake hands with the president with a bionic hand of "cutting edge" technology.
It's a simple gesture most people take for granted, but not Petry. For this Soldier, each handshake is symbolic of a hard-won road to recovery that started three years ago in Afghanistan.
Petry was on his seventh deployment when his Ranger unit left for a rare daylight mission in Paktia province, near the Pakistan border, on May 26, 2008. Insurgents opened fire and Petry was struck in both thighs. He and another wounded Soldier sought the cover of a chicken coop, huddling down as rifle fire kicked up the dust around them.
Another team member moved in to aid them and, as he evaluated their wounds, an insurgent flung a grenade over the coop. It exploded, wounding Petry's comrades.
Moments later, the enemy lobbed another grenade into the chicken coop. Petry watched it land and instinctively knew he had just seconds to react. His most pressing thought: "Get the grenade away" from his buddies.
Petry made the split-second decision to do the unthinkable: he picked up the grenade to throw it. He was just in time to save his fellow Rangers' lives, but not his arm. The grenade exploded as he threw it, tearing off his right hand and further wounding him with shrapnel.
Petry stayed calm, placed a tourniquet on his severed arm and radioed in for support.
The Ranger's heroic, lifesaving actions and composure in the face of hostile fire later earned him the nation's highest military honor. He is one of 10 men to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and one of only 3 living recipients from those conflicts.
Petry was flown to Texas' San Antonio Military Medical Center, then-Brooke Army Medical Center, to recover. He received top-of-the-line prosthetics: a bionic hand for his right arm that moves with the signals Petry once used to contract muscles in his hand.
These so-called robotic hands pick up the brain's signals to "open" or "close" through the muscle and skin, and sensors transmit them via computer to motors within the hand, explained Ryan Blanck, a leading prosthetist at the Center for the Intrepid, BAMC's state-of-the-art rehabilitation center.
"This technology enables hands to work in versatile ways," Blanck said.
A robotic hand was a far cry from the hook the Ranger once assumed would be fitted to the end of his arm.
"It's more than I ever expected," he said during a phone interview. "I can open a jar, shake hands right-handed; do nearly everything I could before."
After nearly 10 months, Petry returned to his duty station and his family at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He now serves as a liaison officer for U.S. Special Operations Command, providing support to wounded, ill and injured troops and their families. It's a fitting job for him, he said, as it offers him a way to still serve his nation and "to pay back toward other Soldiers."
As a Medal of Honor recipient, Petry also does a tremendous amount of community outreach, traveling around the nation to speak to both military and civilians about service and sacrifice.
Petry noted his injury spurs many questions, but he's always willing to roll up his sleeve to show off his prosthetic's cutting-edge technology. "They usually want to know how I get my fingers to move," he said. "It's a great conversation starter."
The Ranger also proudly displays his prosthetic attachments from a cutlery set to a hunting knife that he can swap out with ease. With a passion for cooking since he was a child, he's a common sight in the kitchen, skillfully cutting everything from cucumbers to steak for his family. On pizza nights, he even whips out his pizza-cutter attachment, much to the delight of his youngest son.
He puts a full set of tool attachments to good use, but passed on the fishing pole. "I figured I could manage the fishing pole myself," he said with a laugh.
"What I love about [military] prosthetists," Petry said, "is their intent to help you achieve all that you were able to do before or they'll keep trying."
His experience also has opened new doors to this father of four. Petry took up golf after his injury, thanks to another handy attachment, and now he hits the course often with his 8-year-old son.
While he's modest about his golfing ability, Petry said his son recently has grown a bit cocky. "When asked, he's quick to say that he beat me on one of the holes," the proud dad said with a laugh.
Another hobby -- one that's less popular with his wife, Ashley -- is skydiving. Petry said he just completed a tandem skydive, his second in recent months, with the Golden Knights, the Army's elite demonstration parachute team. "I didn't tell her about it until after," he said. "She wasn't too happy about that."
Although busy with work, family and speaking engagements, Petry said he has no immediate plans to slow down. In fact, after 14 years of service, he's reenlisted for an indefinite period of time.
The Medal of Honor recipient has been showered with media attention and the public's gratitude, but Petry, more humble by nature, shies away from the spotlight. He was uncomfortable at first when he heard about the 8-foot bronze statue of him that's being built for his Santa Fe hometown, but instead he is focusing on the positive.
"Hopefully, our youth will try to find out the story behind it," he said,
"and learn about the sacrifice and commitment so many young men and women in uniform and their families have given and continue to give."
Petry also hopes to serve as an inspiration to other wounded warriors aiming for continued service. "I want them to think, 'If he's doing it; maybe I can do it as well,'" he said.
As a prosthetist, Blanck said it's rewarding to see service members such as Petry soaring to such great heights. Providing this technology to wounded troops and veterans, he added, is "the very least we can do in light of their service and sacrifice."