Monday, July 4, 2011

A hero to our family

This story was published in the Las Cruces Sun-News on June 4, 2011

By Lucas Peerman

LAS CRUCES — It’s Memorial Day 2008 and I’m at work. I whine to a coworker about having to be in the office. Can’t I go outside and go to a BBQ, or go to the wine fest and listen to some tunes, or sit on my couch, drink a beer and watch the NBA playoffs? This is Memorial Day and I deserve this day off, right?

Then, I get a phone call from my mom. She informs me that my cousin, an Army Ranger, has been critically shot and has lost his right hand. It looks like he’s going to pull through, but will be recovering in a hospital in Germany for weeks. I hang up and feel chills running down my spine, my hair stands on end and I try, but find it hard, to speak to my coworker. I spend the rest of the day thinking about my selfishness. This is Memorial Day and up until that phone call, I had not devoted a single thought to my cousins fighting overseas. Now, I get the news that one of them, Leroy Petry, had nearly died. Every Memorial Day since — and many other days — I think about Leroy and what he means to me.

Later that summer, I learn some details about what happened on May 26, 2008. At Leroy’s welcome home party, he shows the family where a bullet ripped through both of his legs, leaving massive scars. Also, he has fun showing off his new mechanical hand, which replaced the real limb that was blown off — just below the elbow — by a grenade. The family asks many questions, although he can only answer a few. Someone brings fireworks to the party, which I don’t think is a good idea. But Leroy doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s the first to light the fuse. Nothing fazes him. If he is feeling any pain from his injuries, he hides it behind the smile that never leaves his face. The family is proud of him and glad that he’s alive.

On Tuesday, it was announced that President Barack Obama will present my cousin, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry, with the Medal of Honor — the highest military decoration — for his courageous actions on the battlefield. He’ll receive the award July 12 in Washington, D.C., and will become only the second living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.

I will later learn more details of the actions that led to Leroy being nominated for this prestigious award. My cousin, already shot through both legs, sacrificed his right arm to throw a grenade away from two of his fellow soldiers, saving their lives that day in Afghanistan. Leroy was already a hero to his family, but as his tale of bravery is relayed to a wider audience, he’s quickly becoming a national hero. I talked to my cousin by phone Thursday and joked with him that he’s now the most famous person I know. Leroy laughed, but not without some trepidation.

Leroy Petry, in red, hangs out with cousins in Santa Fe, circa 1992. Pictured in front are Michael Petry, Samantha Drysdale 
and Lucas Peerman. In back are Steven Drysdale and Leroy, who would both became Army Rangers.
‘Everybody liked Leroy’

Leroy grew up in Santa Fe, the middle of five sons of Larry and Lorella Petry and surrounded by dozens of uncles, aunts, cousins and our Grandma and Grandpa. I grew up in Las Cruces, an only child living 200 miles away from the closest relative aside from my parents.

By no means were Leroy (who is a year older than me) and I the best of friends, but we did hang out during many Christmas and summer vacations. For the most part, those were nights spent learning how to get into — and get out of — trouble. Leroy, 31, has two older brothers — Larry Armando, 33, and Lloyd, 32. (His other brothers are quite a bit younger — Lyndon is almost 19 and Lincoln is 18). Another cousin of ours who grew up in Santa Fe is Steven Drysdale, 32. Steven and Leroy were inseparable as youngsters, except when an adult had to step in to break up the inevitable fight when one didn’t get their way. But they were quick to be best friends again. Steven is also an Army Ranger and a big influence on why Leroy decided to join.

Leroy, being the youngest of the crop of cousins from Santa Fe born in the late '70s, was always especially eager to please. If someone needed something done, he’d be the first to volunteer. That’s because he could never sit still. He was always involved in some activity — football, basketball, fixing cars, even cooking.

“Everybody liked Leroy. He was always smiling, laughing, bonding with people,” his dad told me Friday during a phone conversation. “I don’t think he had one enemy until he got to Afghanistan.”

Even on the football field, Leroy was easygoing and amicable. His dad said he earned the nickname “Powderpuff” because “he never really had the instinct to hit anybody.”

Unfortunately, Leroy didn’t take his studies very seriously either and had to repeat his freshman year at Santa Fe High School. As a high school sophomore, Leroy transferred to St. Catherine Indian School, a small, private school in Santa Fe, “and that’s when he turned his life around,” his dad said. Leroy graduated in 1998, the final year St. Cate’s was open.

After a year at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, he enlisted into the Army Rangers in September 1999. As expected, Leroy fit in right away.

After returning from a tour of duty overseas, Army Ranger Leroy Petry poses for a picture with his son, Landon, and his grandfather, Leo Petry, an Air Force veteran, at Leo’s house in Santa Fe. Also pictured, from left, are Leroy’s uncle, Charles Drysdale, grandmother Bertha Petry and brother Larry Armando Petry.

‘Don’t be a damn hero’

My uncle Larry said Leroy would call him before each overseas deployment. “I would tell him, ‘Don’t be a damn hero. Do your job and get your ass home.’ He’d say, ‘Dad, I’m going with the best. Don’t worry, we have each other’s backs.’”

When my uncle got the phone call in late May 2008 telling him of Leroy’s injuries, there were many questions. “All I knew is he was shot and had been blown up by a grenade. I was devastated.”

After the incident, Leroy was transported to an American hospital in Germany. There, our German-born relative Martina Feld (our grandfather’s cousin) was able to visit. “I asked him if he wanted anything, and he said Gummy Bears,” Martina remembers. “So, that’s what I brought him.”

Leroy was eventually moved to Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was fitted with a mechanical hand. My Uncle Larry went to visit him the first chance he could.

“My kid came back alive,” he said, “but I talked to plenty of parents over there whose kids did not. That really hit hard.”

Although Leroy saved the lives of Pvt. 1st Class Lucas Robinson and Sgt. Daniel Higgins on that fateful May day, another soldier — Spc. Christopher Gathercole — wasn’t so lucky. Gathercole was killed by enemy fire while providing assistance to Leroy and the other injured Americans. 

If you ask Leroy, he’ll say he was just doing his job that day. Any Ranger would have done the same. He said he’ll accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of Gathercole, Robinson, Higgins, Staff Sgt. James Roberts, Sgt. 1st Class Jerod Staidle, Spc. Gary Depriest and other members of his Ranger Battalion — all of them his heroes.

“The best part of this award,” he told me, “is the fact that I was nominated by my fellow soldiers. The fact that they thought I deserved it means so much to me.”

Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, 31, in red, is a Santa Fe native and one of five boys born to Larry and Lorella Petry. His brothers, from left, are Lloyd, 32, Lincoln, 18, Lyndon, almost 19, and Larry Armando, 33.
‘I’m gonna go get a haircut.’

When I talked to Leroy on the phone, he said he knows his life is about to change. He’s both humbled and honored to receive the Medal of Honor, and knows the weight of the medal is not measured in pounds, but in expectations.

“I have to live to a certain standard now,” he said. I have no doubts that he will.

While in Washington for the Medal of Honor ceremony, Leroy will visit our nation’s leaders. After that, he’ll fly to New York to appear on “Good Morning America.” After the morning show circuit, there’s another appearance scheduled, and then another. “They’ve got my next 100 days planned,” he laughed.

Leroy said he understands the attention, but is trying not to get caught up in it. His latest Facebook post reads: “I have received a barrage of FB, phone calls, texts, and phone calls/voicemails. Just wanted to say thank you for all your support and although I might not reach all I am humble honored and blessed. The award is bigger than the person and what it represents and I will always remember that.”

Last year, Leroy enlisted in the Army indefinitely. He enjoys his current job — helping soldiers who have lost limbs readapt to society. He has a lovely wife, Ashley, raises three stepchildren — Brittany, Austin and Reagan — as his own, and never goes anywhere without his son, Landon.

“Well, I’m gonna go get a haircut,” Leroy said before we ended our 10-minute phone conversation. “It’s been about a week.” 

So far, that’s life for this family man, Army Ranger and Medal of Honor recipient. And yes, that’s the order Leroy — my hero — would like it listed.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe it took me this long to read it, but very well put cuz!