Reporter's Notebook: A Hero's Handshake
By Justin Fishel
Published July 14, 2011
When I was getting ready to shake hands with the Medal of Honor recipient I put my pen and notebook in my right hand, thinking to myself, 'I know this guy, he lost his right hand in combat and he'll prefer to shake with his left.' At least I thought I knew him.
Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry has one of the better handshakes I've been a part of -- even if his hand is bionic. In fact, that made it all the more interesting. He reached out with his right hand, a metal and plastic machine formed to look, move and work just like a human hand. I grabbed it and I could hear the metal gears turn as his hand firmly squeezed mine. Not too strong, not too soft, but just right.
On top of the pride I felt to shake hands with Sgt. Petry, I was blown away seeing and feeling his prosthetic hand in action. Moments before I met him in person he told reporters in the Pentagon press corps he thought he'd be wearing a hook for the rest of his life.
"My son, 5 years old at the time, he'd love a hook," Petry said. "I could be a pirate for Halloween. But when they gave me the hand and I saw its functionality and what I'm able to do with it, I was amazed, and I said, I could wear that, and I could wear that for a long time."
Petry lost his right hand in combat on May 26, 2008, fighting a deadly battle with the enemy in a remote province of eastern Afghanistan, near border with Pakistan. Shot once in each leg and laying wounded behind a chicken coup in an insurgent compound, Petry saved the lives of two fellow Rangers when he sacrificed his own hand to throw away an enemy grenade that could have killed them all.
Over 43,418 American service members have been wounded fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, 1,535 of are amputees. Petry said talking to other amputees really helped his recovery process.
"I've learned so much from other service members who have been wounded and injured. And the resiliency of most of the soldiers out there is just amazing," Petry said.
"And I tell you, they feed off of each other. It's the way we do it in the military, it's always competition and encouragement and leadership."
As far as learning to live with a bionic hand, Petry says it's going pretty well.
"It's never going to be as fast as a real hand to pull a trigger again or bounce a basketball," Petry said.
But the good news is that it comes with multiple attachments. Petry said he decided to pick up golf when doctors told him there was an golf attachment. He said he even saw a few guys with bow-release attachments for hunting -- a favorite hobby of Petry's. But perhaps his most valuable attachment -- the set of culinary knives, "which I use constantly in the kitchen at my home cooking for a family of five."
On Tuesday, Petry become only the second living service member from the Iraq and Afghan wars to receive the nation's highest award for valor. Petry was presented with the medal during a ceremony at the White House.
Petry still serves in the Army Rangers. He lives in Steilacoom, Wash., with his wife of eight years, Ashley, and his four children: Brittany (20), Austin (17), Reagan (14) and Landon (7).
Petry's definition of a hero doesn't necessarily involve saving lives in combat, he says. It's the "young men and women when they join the service, who end up putting 20 years in, and are still dedicated and saying, yes, I will, yes, I will, 30-plus years after."
"How is that not a hero?"
Sgt. Petry in His Own Words
On Wednesday, the day I got to shake Petry's hand, he spoke at length to the Pentagon Press Corps about that firefight in Afghanistan. Many of us have heard the account of those events before, but here are some of the highlights in his own words:
"There's a sheet cake, and I look down at it, and it says, Happy Memorial Day. And that -- that's how I got the grasp of what day it was within the calendar. I mean, I knew the date, May 26th, but not the significance. I lost track of time. Just -- we were so busy that rotation.
"We were given a high-value target that we were after, normally we operate night raids. This one happened to be at daylight. We got on helicopters. I was a little bit nervous because daylight raids are rare for us, and it kind of evens the odds a little bit more -- I wouldn't say even; we're still a lot better. But it gives them higher percentage ratings.
"Anyways, we get in. Soon as we land, we're immediately taking immense amount of contact. It was a lot of mud walls, some farm fields, vegetation everywhere, and just about four or five different little compounds within a small area.
"As we're moving up, we take contact and I see another young ranger leading his squad into a compound.
"I broke off from my platoon leader. I said, 'Hey, that guy's -- I'm going to go help them. And they'll probably need some assistance, because it was a larger compound.' I moved in, followed in trail with his squad. At that point, we -- they went in to clear a building in the back.
"Once they entered in, they were clearing the building, I stayed on the outside of the doorway, and I said, 'Hey, we still need to clear this interior courtyard. Give me some guys.' Once they were able to give me a guy -- it was PFC Robinson at the time -- Bob Mann said, 'He got one; let's go.'
"We started moving -- I immediately -- once we broke the corner, I saw two guys out of the peripheral vision of my eyes, and they were spraying AK-47sat the hip, an immense amount of fire.
"Next thing I know, I feel this slap in the side of my thigh -- my left thigh that felt like a hammer striking it, and it was a quick strike of the hammer. And the thought that went through my mind -- it was kind of -- the only thing I could relate it to is the 'Forrest Gump' movie -- something bit me and keep running, because that's what we're trained to do.
"So I ran behind cover, PFC Robinson behind me, who had been shot as well in his rib cage area on his left side. And we take cover behind a little -- small building, probably about eight feet tall to 25 feet wide.
"I'm calling it up on the radio right away, 'Hey, we've got Rangers -- two Rangers down. We're taking heavy contact!' Gave our position. At the same time I'm trying to see how PFC Robinson's doing, and I'm watching my corner, making sure that the enemy doesn't come around and close in on us.
"I grab a thermobaric grenade at the time and threw it over the building toward the enemy. It went off. Right about the same time it went off, one of our third Rangers came over to me, Sergeant Higgins, and he was like, hey, you guys -- you guys, let me help you. I said, 'Help Robinson. Watch security on that corner, I got this side.'
"And I was still calling up the command -- to the command frequency, my platoon leader and my platoon sergeant.
"After that, we were sitting there and still taking a heavy amount of gunfire around both sides. It was just loud, and the younger guys were kind of a little anxious, and we hear a blast. And it was -- sounded like it was right on top of us. Two guys next to me, they were like, what the heck was that?
"And I said, 'They're throwing grenades. Keep your heads down.' And next thing I know is I'm telling them to keep security and self-aid. I call it up, (to say we were) taking small arms and grenade fire. I turned and checked my corner.
"As soon as I turned back to look at my guys -- we weren't more than a few feet apart -- there's a pineapple grenade sitting on the floor about two feet, two and a half feet away from me in the middle of all of this.
"I immediately knew it wasn't one of ours, just for the fact that we haven't used pineapple grenades in quite some time. And my immediate reaction was, get it -- get it out of here, get it away from the guys and myself. And I reached over, leaned over to the right, grabbed it with my hand, and I threw it as hard as I could, and as soon as I opened my hand to let it go, it just exploded instantly.
"And I came back, and the -- the hand was completely severed off.
"I sat up and the hand was gone, but I didn't feel any pain. It was weird. I think it was lot of the adrenaline and the -- not really shock, but adrenaline and the nerves tucking back from the traumatic injury. But I looked at it, and I remembered it so vividly, the blood coming out, oozing. I was waiting for -- where's the Hollywood spray; why isn't it gushing out?
"And I saw the little bit of meat hanging around the side, the radius and the ulna poking up about a quarter of an inch. The smell was a mixture of blood, gunpowder, burn, and there's dirt and -- it looked pretty grotesque, so to speak. But I couldn't help, in amazement, the only thought that was going through my mind was, why isn't it spraying?
"That's what I was looking for, and I was like, oh -- that was a split second that I thought -- that ran through my mind, and then immediately it fell back on training and knowing what to do.
"I reached down, grabbed a tourniquet, was able to apply the tourniquet and tighten it to my limb on my own. And I immediately called up to higher, "Hey, we're still taking heavy contact. We're getting small arms fire. I just lost my hand. Over."
"And I remember calling up to my platoon sergeant, Sergeant Staidle, and as soon as I let go of my mic and -- I thought through my head, that probably wasn't the best thing to put over the mic; he probably has no idea what I'm talking about, I just lost my hand
"Well, the next thing I notice was one of our first sergeants on the ground, Sergeant Walters, comes running up to me from the front side, and the enemy's still to our backs. He comes up to me and grabs me by my kit, and he has to pick me up, and he says, come on, we're going to get you out of here. And I kind of pushed his hand, and I said, 'You're not taking me anywhere until you get those guys back there.'
"And he says, all right, well, we'll come back for you, because that's what we're -- we're trained to fight the fight and continue the fight, and (handle) casualties once the fight is done, or else you just cause more casualties.
"And so he ran off. At that time, Sergeant Staidle had come over. I didn't really catch a lot of the side actions that were going on, but I know that they took contact from the other side of the courtyard as well, and that Sergeant Roberts and Sergeant Higgins had engaged an enemy, and that enemy had shot one of our -- one of our Rangers.
"We knew we needed to get out of this situation. I ended up grabbing onto Sergeant Higgins, Sergeant Staidle, and they helped us get out of there.
"We ran over to this casualty collection point, which we called CCP. And at that point, we got into an enclosed little building area. And the mind said keep going, but the body said wait, we're losing a lot of juice; you've got to stop and take a break.
"And the doc came up to me. He's like, 'Hey, Sergeant Petry, Sergeant Petry, we need to start cutting off your clothes and getting you checked out. I've got to wrap your hand.'
"And I said, 'Don't worry about me. I'm fine. I'm good. I don't have pain. Don't worry.' And I saw them working on a couple other casualties. And I said, 'Go help them, go help them.' And he said, 'No, no, there's other docs working on them. Let me help you.'
"And at that point I was like, okay. Enough people telling me I can't do it anymore, I should probably listen to them. And that's when I found out, when they cut off my uniform, that I was shot through both legs. At first I thought I had just been shot in the leg and maybe the bullet was lodged in my left leg. But they started putting tourniquets on both my thighs thinking I might have nicked an artery or something.
"So to have that bullet go through both my legs and not hit any arteries or bones and just to take tissue and muscle, it was -- it was pretty amazing. It was a miracle. And then to have a grenade go off within arm's distance just about and only thing walking away was shrapnel here and there and a prosthetic hand, I was overzealous that I got two miracles in one day.
"And the third miracle was that the two guys next to me are alive and well. And they continued Rangering on for a little bit. They both just decided to get out of the military and to go on to college and hope to pursue families. And their family did not suffer the loss of them that day. So it was -- it was -- it was a great moment knowing that they will -- their family did not miss out on them, and they'll go on and have children.
"As they're pulling us up the hill, I had a bunch of guys carrying me in a stretcher and I felt kind of -- hey -- guys running up to me saying, hey, you're going to be all right. You're all right.
"I said, 'Hey, we're still -- we're still in the fight. Get away from me. I'll see you later.' I was like, pull security, that's the important thing. We don't need to get shot moving up here. And I know there was a lot of concern. A lot of guys could see the hand was completely amputated. And I said, keep going after it, man. Do what you guys are doing.
"And we get to the helicopter, Sergeant Higgins leans down next to me and says, you saved us, you saved us, you saved us. And I'm just sitting there, man, I want to get back out of this helicopter and go be with the boys. We've got a -- we've got a good -- we've got a good fight going on and I'd like to be there with them.
"But we got to an airfield where we switched over to an airplane. And while we're waiting at that airfield for the airplane, that's when I found out that Specialist Gathercole was the one that was hit.
"My heart dropped at that moment when I knew that we had a guy that was severely hit, a fatal shot to one of our Rangers. And it just -- it tears a piece of you away that -- knowing that another Ranger paid the ultimate sacrifice. And that could have been any one of us.
"And it's great, though, every year the guys get together -- I was glad that his family was able to make it to the ceremony. Every year the guys get together and they do barbecues or stuff like that when it's -- in celebration of -- in celebration of him."
Petry later said if he that he and his fellow Rangers "were definitely inside the kill radius" of that pineapple grenade. "Had I not thrown it, Petry said, "We would have been really severely injured, but more than likely fatal."
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