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Medal of Honor Ceremony for Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, The Pentagon, Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Secretary McHugh, General Dempsey, Admiral Olson, and distinguished guests.  I’d like to join all the other speakers in thanking the friends and family of Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry who have joined us today – and especially his wife Ashley and their four children.  The reason that we thank them is that the brave men and women who protect our nation depend so much on the families who share the heavy burdens and the sacrifices of military service, and we are all gratified for the love and support you provide.

Having just returned from a trip abroad, looking into the eyes of all those men and women who serve our country, and recognizing the sacrifice that’s involved, being away from their loved ones.  The reality is that we couldn’t do this job of defending America without the love and support of those that are in our families.  And I know it’s a sacrifice on their part as well, and for that reason we thank your entire family for the love and support they gave you as you served this country.

This is really a great privilege for me, as one of my first acts as Secretary of Defense to be able to honor a great American hero.  I’ve had a long career in this town.  I’ve worked in a number of capacities, but I can’t tell you what a great honor it is for me personally to honor someone like Sergeant Petry – an Army Ranger – whose historic actions saved the lives of other soldiers.  I often say that the greatest test of life is whether you make a difference.  Someone who saves the lives of others makes a difference, and that’s what you did.

Most Americans can’t imagine the kind of life and death decisions Sergeant Petry had to face that day in Paktya.  These are the burdens that confront the men and women in uniform serving in harm’s way every day.  Today, Leroy Petry’s name joins the hallowed ranks of other Medal of Honor recipients listed on this wall.  He is truly a representative of a new generation of Americans who have answered the call during almost a decade of war.  In paying tribute to him, we also celebrate a generation that is fighting for a better life, a better America, and a better world.

A member of the U.S. Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment, Sergeant Petry’s actions speak to the extraordinary accomplishments of the special operations forces that have been at the center of the fight this past decade.  Admiral Olson, your special forces, I can’t tell you how important they’ve been to our ability to take on the mission that we’ve been assigned, particularly to dismantle, disrupt, and ultimately defeat Al Qaeda.  It was a special forces team that we employed on that attack on the compound that held bin Laden.

I had a chance to show the family, I was given, on one of my last trips to the war zone, was given a little trophy, a brick from that compound, as a memory of the actions that took place there.  And what it symbolized was the tremendous work of the special forces.

At the end, as many of you know, there were a lot of questions about the risks that were involved in that operation.  But when I was asked for my opinion as to whether or not we could do it, I said, you know I have tremendous confidence, tremendous confidence in the ability of special forces to complete this mission.  They do this all the time, they do it well, and I’m convinced that they can carry out this mission, and they did, thankfully for this country.

Like many of his brethren in special forces, Sergeant Petry has deployed multiple times since 9/11.  He has had eight combat deployments – six in Afghanistan, two in Iraq.  Today, as we honor him, we are mindful of the great burden and the heavy costs that fall on this community of warriors – every day and more often every night, as they relentlessly pursue the country’s most dangerous enemies. 

As I said, they have made a real difference in the fight against terrorism.  Every time they go out on an operation, they face huge risks, the risks of being caught in a fire fight, the risks of suddenly being attacked, the risks of facing uncertain consequences in entering a compound that they have no idea who’s there and what they might do.  And yet they respond, they respond with bravery, they respond with discipline, and they respond with the kind of heroism that Sergeant Petry was able to reflect on that operation.  It cost him a hand but it saved the lives of others.

Like so many of our wounded warriors, Sergeant Petry responded to his injuries with grit and with resolve.  After losing his hand, he obviously had to learn to write and work that left hand.  He then started a competition with his son Landon, who was going into kindergarten and learning how to write, to see who could turn out the best “ABC’s.”  I don’t know who the hell won, but it must have been a great competition.

Sergeant Petry has, since that time, devoted himself to caring for wounded warriors and helping injured Rangers return to their posts, drawing inspiration from the Ranger creed: “Never shall I fail my comrades.” 

Sergeant Petry’s actions recall General Douglas MacArthur’s description of the American man-at-arms.  MacArthur said, and I quote: “He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism.  He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom.  He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.”

As I said, I’ve just returned from the war zones, and I had the great opportunity to meet with many of our young men and women who are putting their lives at risk to protect this nation.  To look into their eyes is to look into the heart and soul of America – soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, for their fellow Americans.  The torch of freedom has been lit by their sacrifice.

Leroy Petry, on behalf of a grateful nation, I want to express how thankful we are that you belong to us here in the present – your skill as a soldier, your courage, and your sense of purpose fill our hearts with pride.  The future of our democracy, ladies and gentlemen, depends on the willingness of every generation to fight for what’s right, and what’s best for this country.  Your story, Sergeant Petry, will forever inspire future generations to fulfill that fundamental duty that we all have as citizens of this great land.    

May God bless you and may God bless all men and women in uniform.

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