By Andrea Sutherland, Fort CarsonMarch 1, 2012
FORT CARSON, Colo. (March 1, 2012) -- In the theater of Arnold Hall, 3,000 Air Force Academy cadets sat in silence, fixated on the Army noncommissioned officer standing on stage.
"I am honored to be here with you," said Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, Army Ranger and Medal of Honor recipient and keynote speaker at the 19th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium. "You guys are taking the first steps of your career path. I see a lot of young Soldiers who look up and say, 'I want to be just like Sergeant Petry,' but the truth is, it's the leaders. There are so many great leaders all around. You're going to be leaders."
Petry spoke to cadets at the Feb. 23 event about leadership, highlighting the qualities he values in his officers.
"Mutual respect is key," he said. "The (enlisted Airman) will follow you because of your rank, but they're going to push twice as hard if they respect you as a person."
Petry encouraged cadets to lead by example, to have confidence in their decisions and to learn from failure.
"You're going to make mistakes," he said. "It's how you learn from those mistakes and mitigate them that will make you a great leader."
Petry advised cadets to learn from their NCOs.
"Attach yourselves to your counterparts," he said. "Be a sponge. Know your weaknesses and your strengths."
He also stressed safety, recounting a time when he had to tell his commanding officer that a situation was unsafe and a jump training mission had to be canceled.
"I made the call," he said. "I said it isn't safe to jump. My company commander looked at me and said, 'Are you sure?' He really wanted to jump. I said, 'I'm positive.' We ended up linking up with the rest of our force 24 hours later, but it was worth it because all of my men came back and none of them got hurt."
Petry drew the comparison of his training exercise to the battle that earned him the Medal of Honor.
"I look at this as a positive story," he said. "I had the unfortunate loss of one of our guys that day, but I got two other Rangers that survived."
Petry earned the Medal of Honor May 26, 2008, after his Ranger regiment encountered enemy fighters near Paktya Province, Afghanistan. A staff sergeant serving with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Petry braved enemy fire despite injuries to both of his legs to save two comrades.
"We all go out there thinking we're Superman," he said. "Well, unless that grenade was made of kryptonite, I'm not Superman."
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Petry used suppressive fire to help Rangers move into position when enemy fighters began throwing grenades. The first knocked two Rangers to the ground, wounding both. When a second grenade landed close to his comrades, Petry "unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his safety, deliberately and selflessly moved forward, picked up the grenade, and in an effort to clear the immediate threat, threw the grenade away from his fellow Rangers."
As he released the grenade, it detonated, amputating his right hand at the wrist. Petry applied his own tourniquet and was eventually medically evacuated to safety.
Petry underwent several surgeries and received a prosthetic hand, which attaches to his forearm.
"It's a great conversation starter," Petry told the cadets as he rotated his hand 360 degrees. "I have attachments, knives, a hook and two-foot fishing pole."
Despite his injuries, he's continued to serve, re-enlisting to work with wounded, ill and injured servicemembers.
His continued service and dedication exemplified leadership and led to the invitation to speak at the Academy, officials said.
"I feel honored that someone of his caliber would come and talk to us," said Corey Landis, Air Force Academy cadet. "It hasn't been that long since he's had (the Medal of Honor). He's more down to earth (than other speakers). It's nothing he's rehearsed."
Landis' classmates agreed.
"It's real," said Mike McClearn, cadet. "It was amazing."
"It doesn't matter that he's Army," said Eric Ruth, cadet. "We have a rivalry, but when it comes down to it, we're all brothers in arms."
Petry echoed those sentiments during his speech.
"We're one team when we go out together," he said. "There were numerous times I had seen the AC-130 coming, breaking hell over the objective and it was a great feeling knowing we had that support. Shoot, Air Force gave me a ride every time I went overseas. Sure beats a boat ride."