Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Leroy, our hero

(This column will be published in the Las Cruces Sun-News and Santa Fe New Mexican on July 13)

WASHINGTON — I had a chat Monday night with a Ranger who served on missions with my cousin, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, during some of the first deployments to Afghanistan. The Ranger remembered one mission in particular when they took on enemy fire and bullets went zipping by Leroy’s head. Leroy calmly said to the Ranger in front of him, “I think they’re shooting at us.” “No,” the Ranger replied “they’re shooting at you.” Offered this new perspective, Leroy laughed. 

“That’s just the kind of guy he is — never nervous,” the Ranger said after telling me that story at our hotel in Arlington, Va. The Ranger, along with many other members of the 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., made the trip to Washington, D.C., to be in attendance Tuesday when President Obama awarded Leroy the Medal of Honor.

Leroy’s demeanor would come into play May 26, 2008 in Paktya Afghanistan — during his seventh tour of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan — when he would lead troops in a daring daylight raid to capture a high-value target. Leroy would be shot through both legs and wounded by a grenade — but still alive along with two other Rangers taking cover behind a chicken coop — when another grenade landed near the group. Leroy picked it up and threw it away. The grenade blast would amputate his right hand, but his bravery likely saved the lives of Sgt. Daniel Higgins and Pvt. 1st Class Lucas Robinson. Another Ranger, Spc. Christopher Gathercole, would be shot and killed while heading to the chicken coop to offer his assistance after the second grenade detonated.

I got to have a beer with Dan and Luke on Monday night, and I have my cousin to thank for that. President Obama thanked Leroy for his “valor and sacrifice” Tuesday during the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. The president used the phrases “extraordinary American soldier” and “true American hero” to describe Leroy. Obama also said, “this could not have happened to a nicer guy.” That’s the comment I’ll remember.

Leroy’s immediate family — his wife, his kids, his mom and dad, his grandparents and his brothers — were at the White House. Other members of the extended family, including me, gathered to watch the ceremony on the large TV in our hotel lobby. Emotions ran high and I’m not too proud to admit I had tears in my eyes as our commander-in-chief placed the Medal of Honor around my cousin’s neck.

Leroy became the second living Medal of Honor recipient from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Medal or not, the family is proud that Leroy came back from the war alive and has resumed his duties as a loving father and husband. 

Although he’s now a Medal of Honor recipient and joins an elite fraternity of American heroes, Leroy will remain humble. If it were up to him, he would slice up the medal and offer a piece to each of his fellow Rangers. However, Leroy also knows the weight of the medal is not measured in pounds, but in expectations, and will live his life accordingly. He has the next few months planned out for him, and then it’s back to the Army and likely returning to his job helping soldiers who have lost limbs readapt to society. 

If you ever have the opportunity to meet Leroy, treat him as a Ranger first, a Medal of Honor recipient second. He’d appreciate that.

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Leroy Arthur Petry wears the Medal of Honor, awarded to him by President Barack Obama, for his valor in Afghanistan, Tuesday during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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