An Army Ranger from New Mexico who lost his hand throwing a grenade away from two fellow soldiers in Afghanistan will become one of only two living service members awarded the elite Medal of Honor in the current round of conflicts, Army officials said Thursday.
Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who will receive the nation’s highest award for valor from President Obama on July 12, continued to bark orders at his junior enlistees even as he was being bandaged at the scene of a 45-minute fight with insurgents, members of his unit told reporters.
Petry had already been shot in both legs but could have dragged himself around a wall to save himself. Instead, he reached over and grabbed the grenade to eliminate the threat to two other soldiers close within its range, they said.
“He will tell you that he was presented with a problem, made a decision and took action,” said Master Sgt. Reese Wayne Teakell, who was first sergeant of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment when it raided a compound of suspected insurgents in Paktia province in May 2008.
“You go to work every day, you train hard; you’re building that warrior mentality in everybody,” Teakell said. “But every once in a while, a guy’s tested. It just happened that Leroy was tested that day.”
Army officials said the raid eventually led to the death of a targeted key local insurgent — killed in his vehicle after he fled the compound — and at least three other armed fighters.
Petry, a 31-year-old father of four now stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., is still on active duty with a prosthetic hand and recently completed several 5-kilometer runs and a 20-mile march with his unit.
Only nine Medals of Honor have been issued in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — seven posthumously — compared with 248 in Vietnam, 136 in Korea and 465 during World War II. About 3,400 have been granted since the Civil War.
Fewer service members have been in combat at any one time in the current conflicts than in past major wars, one possible explanation for the relatively small number of awards. There have been calls among veterans groups and in Congress, however, for more recognition of the acts of bravery in the long-running wars of the last decade. The other living Medal of Honor recipient from the current wars is Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who rushed into enemy fire and pulled three wounded soldiers to safety in Afghanistan in 2007. He was a specialist at the time.
Petry’s colleagues, who nominated him for the medal, said their search through the records demonstrated that his actions easily paralleled those of past award recipients.
The operation involving Petry began when about 70 Rangers landed by helicopter and launched a two-pronged attack on the compound, encountering about 40 men, roughly 12 of them armed, Petry’s colleagues said Thursday.
Master Sgt. Steven Walter said he and Petry, a staff sergeant at the time, were with a group that split off from those attacking the southern end of the compound, where the main target was thought to be. While Walter and his men set up a position outside, Petry and others ventured into the second target building. Walter heard gunfire and Petry called for backup, but Walter was blocked from entering by the fighting.
“The next call I got was from Sgt. Petry, stating that he had lost his hand,” Walter said.
Petry and Pfc. Lucas Robinson had moved in to assist another squad and encountered at least three armed fighters when trying to clear the courtyard outside the building. Petry was hit in the legs; Robinson was struck by a round in the side plate of his armored vest.
Petry led Robinson to the cover of a chicken coop, and threw a grenade to enable Sgt. Daniel Higgins to join them and assess their wounds. Just then, an enemy grenade landed near the coop and went off, wounding Higgins and Robinson.
A second grenade was lobbed toward the coop, landing near Higgins and Robinson. Sgt. 1st Class Jerod Staidle, the platoon sergeant, said Petry could have pulled himself behind the wall and evaded the grenade. Instead, seeing it was close to Higgins and Robinson, he pushed himself forward and grabbed it, tossing it away from them.
As he did, it exploded, blowing off his hand. Petry proceeded to tie a tourniquet onto his own arm and direct the others in securing the area, colleagues said.
Two other soldiers began opening fire at the insurgents from behind the coop. One of them, Spc. Christopher Gathercole, was fatally shot in the head.
“If not for Staff Sgt. Petry’s actions, we would have been seriously wounded or killed,” Higgins wrote in his report.
Petry has declined to be interviewed before next month’s White House ceremony.
“It’s very humbling to know that the guys thought that much of me and my actions that day, to nominate me for that,” he said in a statement.