This is only the second time since the Vietnam era that the nation's highest military honor has been awarded to a soldier who survived combat.
WASHINGTON — President Obama grasped the prosthetic right hand of Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry on Tuesday, awarding him the Medal of Honor for saving two comrades’ lives by hurling away a grenade as it exploded, taking his hand.
This is only the second time since the Vietnam era that the nation’s highest military honor has been awarded to a soldier who survived combat. Obama bestowed the first award last fall to another veteran of Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who was present in the East Room along with medal winners from past wars.
Seven Medals of Honor have gone to soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Obama called them “members of the 9/11 generation” of service members.
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About 3,400 Medals of Honor have been granted since the Civil War — including 248 in Vietnam, 136 in Korea and 465 during World War II.
Petry, 31, has also been awarded two Bronze Star medals and a Purple Heart, among other honors. He serves in the 75th Ranger Regiment unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, and has made deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This base has been a major military hub during the decade of war since 9/11, with Stryker infantry brigades, Rangers and other units repeatedly deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petry, in his Army career, deployed twice to Iraq and six times to Afghanistan. In these four-month tours of combat duty, the pace was intense, with Petry’s unit running about 100 mission a month, according to the Army News Service. At the White House, the room was full of his fellow Rangers, Petry’s wife, Ashley, their four children — Brittany, Austin, Reagan and Landon — his parents and other family and friends, along with some elected officials.
Petry, a Santa Fe, N.M., native, sought to turn attention away from himself and toward other service members and military families.
“To be singled out is very humbling. I consider every one of our men and women in uniform serving here, abroad, to be our heroes,” Petry told reporters outside the White House. “They sacrifice every day and deserve your continued support and recognition.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also said she was humbled “to see this young man with kids and family who was willing to risk his life for fellow soldiers in such a courageous way.”
In an emotional moment during Obama’s speech, the sister, brother and grandmother of Spc. Christopher Gathercole stood up, to applause. Gathercole died in the same raid that took Petry’s hand.
On May 26, 2008, Petry joined other Rangers in a high-risk daylight mission in the Paktia province of eastern Afghanistan to find insurgents and, more important, a top al-Qaida commander.
While Petry and a fellow soldier were clearing a building, Petry was shot in both legs and bled badly.
The two took cover behind a chicken coop along with another soldier.
An insurgent grenade exploded nearby, wounding Petry’s comrades.
A second grenade landed a few feet away.
Petry grabbed the grenade and threw it as it exploded in his hand.
But two of his fellow soldiers were saved.
“This 28-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four, did something extraordinary,” Obama said. “He lunged forward, toward the live grenade. He picked it up. He cocked his arm to throw it back.”
Still Petry kept going, applying his own tourniquet and issuing orders to help his unit fight and win, the president said.
Petry told the Stars and Stripes that before the 2008 battlefield incident he had thought a lot about what he would do if an enemy grenade landed next to him during a firefight.
“You’d hear stories about guys jumping on grenades,” Petry said in his interview with Stars and Stripes. “I thought about it and I said that if there was any time you could visually see a grenade, you should have time to to react to it, kick it, throw it, do what you can.”
Then, during the firefight, he said he acted on “pure instinct.”
“I didn’t feel any pain,” he told the Stars and Stripes. “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 and applied the tourniquet that I had.”
Petry’s leg injuries sometimes make it hard for him to stand, but, Petry didn’t seek to leave the Army, instead staying enlisted and even returning to Afghanistan for an eighth deployment last year.
At Lewis-McChord, Petry tracks and monitors injured Rangers returning home from war.
Obama also described seeing Petry’s prosthetic limb up-close as they met privately in the Oval Office before the Medal of Honor ceremony. Petry has bolted a small plaque to his arm with the names of fallen Rangers from the 75th Regiment.
“They are, quite literally, part of him, just as they will always be part of America,” said Obama.
Compiled from The New York Times, McClatchy Newspapers, Tribune Washington bureau, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and information from Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton