FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Oct. 26, 2021) -- A Basic Combat Training graduation in late August possessed slightly more pomp than the usual ceremonies. The event was for three training units and their 500-plus new Soldiers that drew many families, friends, and military personnel from across the country.
Amongst that multitude stood a man in a formal light blue suit who possessed the nation’s greatest medal given for military service. Medal of Honor (MoH) recipient and retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry addressed the crowd from the podium and later posed for photos and responded to questions.
Standing off to the side, I listened in as Mr. Petry talked with journalists and admitted that everyone was looking at him. However, he said the graduating Soldiers were the most important people there that day, on account of the guts and courage it took for them to join the Army.
I smiled, recalling the previous evening at 1st Battalion, 19th Field Artillery, of informally meeting Mr. Petry, and how much it differed from the spectacle of graduation.
Modest tables were covered with cheap plastic table cloths, along with boxes of pizza and soft drink containers as drill sergeants sat relaxed around the table listening to a man with a prosthetic arm.
Mr. Petry appeared calm, easygoing and soft spoken. He displayed a noticeable morbid sense of humor similar to most military members, but his jokes were never rude. He recalled the events of May 26, 2008, when he was shot in both legs and threw a grenade away from his teammates. This moment in combat led to him receiving the MoH. He also mentioned his first conversation with his wife after being wounded, later hospital memories (reminiscent of zombie movies), and how he returned to Afghanistan for his “proper exit” ready to move on with his life.
He told us how it is to live with a prosthetic arm (it does have its pros) – and then suddenly, without hesitating, he unscrewed his hand from the arm and casually passed it to the officer sitting next to him. Surprisingly quite heavy, it made its way around the room as each Soldier hefted and inspected it.
Later, Mr. Petry reached into his backpack and removed a small black pouch from which he revealed the medal. He passed it around the table as everyone held it for a moment, perhaps thinking about the weight, sacrifice, and legacy associated with the Medal of Honor. Then the conversation switched to where recipients store it. Mr. Petry said some secure it in safes; others keep it close in nightstands.
As the 1-19th FA public affairs representative, I jokingly insisted on the mandatory group picture by the cannon in front of our battalion, though Mr. Petry was one step ahead of me.
Slowly our group moved to the designated spot. It was after 7 p.m. and the Soldiers were coming back to the battery footprint from Family Day. I saw how some of them spotted a man with a prosthetic arm and a medal on his neck. They looked curious, but I believe that Mr. Petry’s attention remained focused on the drill sergeants and no one else. The young Soldiers’ time would come the next day.
At the cannon in front of the Birtz Hall, I gave specific commands on how to form up for the picture so everyone would fit in the frame. I am not an expert photographer, and as such I was afraid the picture would not turn out. Despite my fears, it turned out perfectly. I was relieved and content.
I was still thinking about the picture quality when Mr. Petry suddenly asked Capt. Eric Seitz, D Battery commander, to take another picture with me in it. He said he understood how it was for public affairs personnel to be left behind or forgotten.
The image slightly cut the cannon off, but I still have it as it reminds me of Mr. Petry’s courtesy that spoke volumes about him, his personality, and tact.
He also made sure everyone got his challenge coin, though he didn’t have enough on him. True to form though, the next day Captain Seitz had a little bag of them for those who did not receive one.
D Battery drill sergeants will never forget that evening and the honest conversation it brought. A conversation about the modern Army and its challenges, about leadership, sacrifice, and prosthetic limbs.
Heroes are ordinary people. Just like us. Mr. Petry is a hero, a citizen, a family guy, and just a good person. Thank you for your time -- Rangers lead the way!