WASHINGTON -- Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry had thought a lot about what he would do if an enemy grenade landed next to him during a firefight.
If he was inside, he’d dive on top of it, figuring that would be the only way to save others nearby. If he was outdoors, he’d try to toss it away from others, figuring the long fuse might allow him enough time to save himself, too.
Saving only himself was never an option.
“You’d hear stories of guys jumping on grenades,” Petry said in an interview with Stars and Stripes this week. “I thought about it and I said that if there was any time you could visually see a grenade, you should have time to react to it ... kick it, throw it, do what you can.”
So when a live grenade landed between him and two teammates during a firefight in Afghanistan three years ago, Petry didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the grenade, turned and tried to throw it.
“It was just pure instinct,” he said. “And it was the right thing to do.”
The weapon exploded as he threw it, severing his right hand but ultimately saving the lives of two of his men. On Tuesday, the 31-year-old Army Ranger became only the second living recipient of the Medal of Honor for the war in Afghanistan, an honor he calls humbling but his fellow soldiers call fitting for his heroism.
Petry was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment on his eighth combat deployment when the fateful attack occurred. Today, he works with fellow wounded warriors as part of U.S. Special Operations Command’s care coalition, a job he plans to continue after a spate of media interviews and public appearances.
“This definitely all feels new to me … but it doesn’t change who I am,” he said. “I’m still the same person to my Ranger buddies. I’ve just got an extra piece of flash on me.”
According to Army battlefield reports, the Memorial Day 2008 battle was part of a dangerous and rare daylight raid of an insurgent compound in Paktia, a volatile border province in southern Afghanistan. Petry and two other soldiers were clearing a courtyard when he was ambushed and shot through both legs.
As the men tried to regroup, a grenade blast knocked them down. Petry gathered himself from the first blast just in time to see a second grenade land a few feet away.
When the explosion severed his hand, Petry was already fueled by adrenaline and anger from his earlier wounds.
“I didn’t feel any pain,” he said. “It was odd. When I sat back up and saw my hand … I grabbed where my wrist was, and it was completely gone. I was waiting for the Hollywood squirt, blood to go flying in the air, but that didn’t happen. Then I went back to my military training, applied the tourniquet that I had.”
In fact, Petry’s men said he continued to bark orders and point out enemy locations, even as he struggled to deal with his own wounds. Another soldier, Spc. Christopher Gathercole, was fatally wounded in the ensuing gunfight. But the other soldiers eventually killed the enemy fighters.
As they evacuated Petry from the site, he joked that he should have used his left hand, since he was right-handed, and he remained calm as medics tended to his injuries.
When asked how he stayed focused and composed, Petry replied “I didn’t go into shock because I knew that doesn’t help.”
Today, Petry wears a state-of-the-art prosthetic hand to replace his missing limb. He can perform most daily tasks with it, even shake hands and play golf.
The Medal of Honor is the latest military award that Petry has received. He spent 28 months in Iraq and Afghanistan before that attack, earning two Bronze Stars and three Army Commendation Medals.
Petry said that he has more anxiety about being hailed as a hero than he ever did on the battlefield.
“Having people come up and say, ‘Thank you’ has always been special to me,” he said. “That’s the greatest reward a servicemember can get. But to have them call me a hero, that’s a little difficult. I have my heroes too. I guess that makes my heroes superheroes? There are a lot of people out there who deserve recognition.”
Petry has spoken with a number of previous Medal of Honor recipients in the weeks since his award was announced, including former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient from Afghanistan. He said they warned him that “it’s a lot easier to earn the medal than it is to wear it.”
Still, Petry said he hopes the attention on him will focus the public on his fellow troops. Despite his injuries, he said he doesn’t regret his actions at all.
“Knowing that (the two other soldiers near the grenade) continued to go on missions, re-enlisting, and knowing their families and my own didn’t have to suffer a lost life that day, that makes it worth it,” he said. “I’m fortunate that even having lost a limb, I can say I lost it doing something I wanted to.”