Medal of Honor recipient encourages 'taking a knee' for behavioral health
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- On June 27, Medal of Honor recipient retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry encouraged a packed audience at Madigan Army Medical Center to "take a knee" when they need to focus on their behavioral health.

Petry, the first Medal of Honor recipient to formally sponsor a behavioral health program, focused on encouraging service members and veterans to recognize their own behavioral health needs, to support each other, and to get help when needed.

"We're never alone. There's always somebody there beside us," Petry said.

He received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Ranger in Afghanistan in 2008. Although he was already wounded, Petry lunged toward danger to pick up a live grenade and throw it away from his fellow Rangers. While the explosion grievously wounded him, Petry's actions saved his fellow Rangers from being severely wounded or killed.

In fact, Petry took off his medal to share it with the audience of service members and civilians.

"This medal that I wear doesn't belong to me; I get to hang onto it, but it represents all of us who have served, who are continuing to serve, and especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said.

It is the memory of the Soldiers he lost in his unit when he was serving, as well as supporting Gold Star families and active-duty and veteran troops alike, which drives Petry to share his own behavioral health struggles to encourage others to also get help, he said. He lives with the effects of traumatic brain injury, and, although never officially diagnosed, said he believes he may have post-traumatic stress as well.

Petry said that at one point after he received the Medal of Honor, he saw three psychologists so that one could be available whenever he was home. They offered him the privacy and confidentiality to talk about anything he chose.

"The truth is, there are times when you can't suck it up," Petry said. "As we talk about mental health, having the initiative to get help is probably the biggest thing that's out there."

He spoke about the additional dynamic of getting help as leaders, who should also consider how their behavioral health challenges may be impacting their troops. Petry recalled a leader who after sustaining a TBI from an improvised explosive device had to grapple with memory problems. He dealt with that himself after he lost his almost photographic memory.

"How do you deal with that? Mentally that can eat you alive because you're a leader," Petry said.

He encouraged the Soldier to take care of himself.

"The best thing I told him was to do the same thing I did: Take a knee and go fix yourself. Look at what you're in charge of, look at your job, and look at how you perform. If you can't perform up here, maybe it's time to take a break," he said.

Petry said he encourages people to look out for each other as well.

"You don't have to wear the uniform to be a hero to someone. You don't have to save somebody's life … being a hero to somebody can be as simple as helping them out when they're having a hard time or a hard day, or listening to their problems, and trying to find them help when they need help, recognizing that person when they need help," Petry said.

Families in particular may notice issues service members don't display at work, and they might also be affected themselves by the changes. Petry said he and his wife went to marriage counseling after he stopped deploying more often, and they had to address the new dynamics in their family once he was home.

"We started going to marriage counseling together … and it was helpful because a lot of it was communication," Petry said.

He looks out for other veterans, sometimes getting phone calls to check in on someone, and he's even had people in his own life point out what he may want to address himself.

"That's the biggest thing you can do is be honest with somebody and say 'Hey, I'm having issues,' or 'Hey, you're having issues. Let's get this fixed.' I think that is probably one of the most courageous things we can do -- is being honest with somebody," Petry said.

And when leaders notice or find out that their service members could use behavioral health help, the best thing they can do is let them get it.

"That's the most important thing is to have a well-rounded Soldier that's mentally healthy and able to do their job in the military. It never seems like the best time to let them go to doctors' appointments and stuff like that, but that is crucial to their daily activities," he said. "That is their responsibility as a leader is to take care of their troops, and they can't do more than to let them take care of themselves mentally, physically and spiritually."

He cautioned against using drugs or alcohol to cope with behavioral health issues -- "that depression that you might have been suffering just got 10 times bigger" -- or isolating themselves -- "that's the scariest thing we can do is isolate ourselves, and not talk to anyone, because that's when apathy really sets in."

Petry urged anyone struggling with their behavioral health to work on moving the lens from focusing on their bad memories to their good ones. He shared a memory of golfing with his then-8-year-old son, when Petry only got one good shot in all day.

"That's the only memory I have of that day. I don't think about all of the bad shots; I think about the good shots," he said. "When you start having a lot of bad memories, that's what you're going to feel. When you start compacting them down with great memories and happy memories, those are the ones that you're going to remember, and those are the ones that are going to make life happy for you."

He emphasized that life after a traumatic event is not easy, though.

"You're going to have good days and bad days, you're going to be on a roller coaster, but it's building those support networks; it's building that trust in people that you can call them when you're having one of those hard times," Petry said.

"You're not alone on this journey of life."