WASHINGTON -- For Leroy Petry, clutching a live grenade and attempting to return it was second nature, regardless of the outcome. The Army Ranger wasn’t thinking about himself, but just protecting the Soldiers by his side, he said.
That split-second decision changed the course of his life forever.
It’s been more than a decade since the retired master sergeant lost his right hand saving fellow Rangers in battle, a selfless act that would warrant a Medal of Honor three years later.
But his passion for helping troops has only grown.
These days, Petry sits on a board for the Association of the U.S. Army as an advocate for Soldiers, among other projects. He considers his AUSA role as “a direct link to the Army’s top brass,” he said, adding, “I get to tell them about some of the major issues that are impacting the lower ranks that they don't sometimes get to see as often.”
When he’s not spending time with his family, his days are filled with phone calls, board meetings, and other ways to help Soldiers.
“One of the things that I've been focusing on primarily is suicide prevention -- veterans and active duty,” he said. “It's something that is continuing to grow, especially with this coronavirus. It's isolated a lot of folks and that's really [increased] the numbers. The worst thing you could do is isolate somebody that's already having mental health issues.”
In August, Petry traveled to Fort Knox, Kentucky, with other wounded veterans with the nonprofit group, Troops First Foundation, to share their stories and offer words of encouragement. The trip was part of Operation Warrior Call, a project to help curb suicides in the military community. The veterans have done similar trips to other installations.
Being on the road is nothing new for Petry. While in the Army, he deployed twice to Iraq and six times to Afghanistan.
Crossfire in the courtyard
May 26, 2008, was just a routine day for his 75th Ranger Regiment unit. During any given four-month deployment rotation, the Rangers went on countless missions, sometimes two per day. On this fateful occasion, then-Staff Sgt. Petry led a team of Soldiers from D Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion into a Taliban hotbed during a daylight raid.
Before their boots ever touched the Paktia Province terrain, the odds had already been stacked against them. The mission was clear: capture a high-value target. These operations were not typically executed in broad daylight, he said.
They were best carried out at night when it’s easier to conceal troop movement, but military intelligence didn’t always accommodate to ideal conditions.
There was a small window of opportunity, and despite everything, they were going to take their shot. That afternoon, multiple CH-47 Chinook helicopters brought the Rangers straight to the Taliban’s front door. Upon arrival, Petry hit the ground running, helping fellow Rangers clear the targeted compound. Initially, things went as smooth as a routine training exercise; the first portion of the building was residential and quickly cleared.
The tone shifted when Petry, alongside another member of the assault squad, Pvt. 1st Class Lucas Robinson, pressed on to an outer courtyard.
In the building’s enclosure, the duo encountered AK-47 gunfire from three nearby insurgents. Petry was hit with a clean shot through both thighs. His adrenaline, along with his leadership training, started to kick in. First, he checked on Robinson, who was alive but shot on the left side of his torso.
With bullets still spraying, Petry mustered the strength to help his battle buddy take shelter behind an 8-foot-tall chicken coop in the corner. There, he radioed for assistance and tossed a thermobaric grenade over the wall toward the gunfire. His quick thinking provided enough lull time for Sgt. Daniel Higgins to head their way to help.
One of the Taliban fighters then lobbed a grenade back toward the Rangers, which landed roughly 30 feet away before exploding. The blast marred both Higgins and Robinson with shrapnel and knocked them off their feet.
A second Taliban grenade followed and landed much closer to the wounded Americans. There was only a fraction of time to put distance between them and the imminent blast. Without hesitation, Petry hurled himself toward the live grenade, because “it was probably going to kill all three of us,” he said. “If I had time to see it, I had time to kick it, throw it -- just get it out of there.”
He knew the munition had a fuse of roughly 4 1/2 seconds, depending on its condition or when the pin was pulled, he said. In other words, there was no real way of knowing the exact detonation time, but he charged toward it anyway.
In an attempt to clear the threat, Petry tried to toss the live grenade away from the Rangers. Instead of soaring through the air, it detonated and blew off his right hand.
A moment that changed everything
In the blink of an eye, Petry’s throwing arm was left in tatters, but his teammates were still alive. Even today, he has no regrets because he knew “they would have done the same for me.”
He would later recall how his wound wasn’t like “how it happens in the movies.” At the time, Petry didn’t even realize the severity of the damage.
"I didn't think [the grenade] was going to go off," Petry said. "I didn't feel much pain. I didn't know it had taken my hand until I sat back up and saw it was completely amputated at the wrist."
Still running on a rush of energy and impulse, Petry controlled the bleeding with a battlefield tourniquet, and reported over the radio that he and the other two Rangers had been wounded, all the while still under heavy enemy fire. The three Soldiers were cornered in the courtyard.
In the end, the Taliban fighters were gunned down by responding American Soldiers. During the crossfire, Spc. Christopher Gathercole, a 21-year-old California native, was killed in a small-arms exchange after he arrived to help Petry, Higgins, and Robinson.
It’s warfighters, like Gathercole, Petry would later say help him carry the weight of the Medal of Honor’s legacy.
Road to recovery
The years that followed were difficult. Although the operational tempo slowed down, his desire to get back into the fight only grew, he said.
At first, Petry was in-and-out of surgeries to repair the damaged tissue to his hand. After arriving at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, the seasoned Ranger -- still in his 20s -- no longer had a functioning hand. In its place were only skin, broken bones, and no fingers.
While on the mend at the hospital, Petry gained strength both physically from the medical staff, and inwardly from the other wounded veterans. It would be those veterans, who suffered an array of injuries from severe burns to other amputees, whom he grew close to and eventually would dedicate his Army career working with.
First, Petry had to recover. The medical staff eventually removed living parts from his arm and attached a robotic prosthetic hand. The new hand is equipped with sensors and movable mechanics controlled by electronic muscle signals that have a similar dexterity of a functioning hand.
The prosthetic hand can also slide over Petry’s forearm. After plenty of hours of practice in occupational therapy, the new right hand became second nature. On it, there is a plaque with the names of fallen Rangers in his regiment.
Reenlistment, Medal of Honor
In 2010, Petry reenlisted for an indefinite term of service. His first role back was as a liaison officer for the Warrior Care Program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington -- near where he lives today.
Petry credits the warfighters he met during his recovery as an inspiration to the job. In Washington, he assisted wounded and ill Rangers, and their families, on their roads to recovery.
A year after reenlisting, in July 2011, Petry received the nation’s most prestigious personal military decoration, the Medal of Honor, by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony attended by his family and fellow Soldiers.
Petry officially retired from the Army in 2014 after nearly 15 years of service.
“When I think of young Leroy Petry in the military, I think of how I would have felt to meet a [four-star] general or a Medal of Honor recipient,” he said. “If either of those two walked in a room and spent 10 seconds talking to [the younger me], I would have been ecstatic.”
That outlook led to years of giving back to the Army, because at the end of the day “I miss it,” he said, regarding uniformed service. “I try to stay involved so I feel like I’m still a part of it. Helping Soldiers helps me miss it less.”
Even if the days of kicking in doors in search of targets are behind him, Petry’s fight to help the Soldier “to his left and right” is long from over. For him, the Ranger tab is something he’ll wear for life.