Press Conference with Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. 1st Class Petry at the Pentagon
MAJ. BRIAN DESANTIS: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming. My name is Major Brian DeSantis. I'm the public affairs officer for the 75th Ranger Regiment.
And yesterday, as you all know, Sergeant First Class Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor by the president of the United States in a ceremony at the White House. Sergeant First Class Petry is the second living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War and the first member of the 75th Ranger Regiment to receive this honor.
Sergeant First Class Petry is not going to make an opening statement. We're just going to get straight into answering your questions. I'd just ask, if you have a question, raise your hand. I'll be standing over here and I'll call on you. Could you -- if you could, please identify yourself with your name and organization to Sergeant Petry before you ask your question. If you have a follow-up, raise your hand and I'll call on you for a follow-up. We'll do this for about 45 -- or excuse me, for about 30 minutes or until there are no more questions.
So with that, Medal of Honor Recipient Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry.
Justin -- the first question.
Q: Sergeant Petry, congratulations on your award, first of all. I'm Justin Fishel from Fox.
If you don't mind, could you tell us in your own words what happened that day? We've heard the story described, but I'd like to hear it from you, if it's okay.
SGT. PETRY: Do you want the fast version or the whole version?
SGT. PETRY: The whole version's going to take some time. But that's okay, I'll go through it.
We were given a high-value target that we were after, not normally -- a night -- normally we operate night raids. This one happened to be at daylight. We got on helicopters.
It's kind of funny, the one thing I noticed that day was – you kind of lose track of time because you're so busy overseas.
And I remember running into our tent where we keep our food, and I was going to grab a few snacks. In case we got stuck over a long period of time, the guys would have some extra food, because you never know how long a mission's going to take.
But I walk into this tent, and it's decorated like the 4th of July, and I'm looking around. I'm going -- I don't even know what date it is right now, and I've -- 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.
And we get on the helicopter. As we're going out, I'm -- 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.
Sparsely vegetated -- just to give you an idea of the terrain, it was a lot of mud walls, some farm fields, vegetation everywhere. And then it's a really urban environment -- I mean a rural environment -- I'm sorry -- and just about four or five different little compounds within a small area.
And as we're moving up, we take contact, and my platoon leader, who I was moving with -- I was supposed to be the senior element for the headquarters once we get into the compound, one of the main target buildings of -- and the -- 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. I can -- I can't remember what -- north or northwest, I think it was.
Anyways, it was in the back corner, diagonal from us, about 10 o'clock from where we entered. And then -- excuse me one second; let me get a drink of water. 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 eye 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. You're taking contact, get behind cover.
So I ran behind cover, PFC Robinson behind me, who had been shot as well in his -- about – at rib cage area on his left side. And we take cover behind a little -- small building, probably about 8 feet tall, 6 or 6 -- 6 to 8 feet, 7 feet tall, and about 20 -- 25 -- 20 to 25 feet wide.
And we take cover behind that. I'm telling him right away -- he's saying he's hit. 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, and I'm telling-- at the same time I'm trying to get PFC -- see how PFC Robinson's doing, saying, “Hey, make sure you (inaudible) security, starting doing self aid on yourself.” And I'm watching my corner, making sure that the enemy doesn't come around and close in on us.
And 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, the -- 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, was 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 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, what I thought was, at the time. 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 (inaudible) 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 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.
And I didn't find out about that until -- well, I knew we needed to get out of there.
Going back to when we're sitting there, first sergeant took off. I was sitting there. 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.
But when I -- when I got to there, we got -- there was -- it took about what seemed to me about five minutes, them getting us all ready for what we call an (inaudible) where they -- Medevac process; they come in and pick up the wounded. Well, as they get -- 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 were like – they could -- because they could see the hand was completely amputated. And I said, keep going after it, man. Do you right. 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 (inaudible) was the one that was hit. And I thought -- I -- it just -- 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 I didn't know the name at the time, but I knew it was one of them. 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. And I'm proud to have him on my memorial that I have on my arm.
I'm sure you've heard about it. And it's a great honor serving with the rangers.
Q: And had you not thrown that pineapple grenade away, what -- I mean, how (inaudible) have been?
SGT. PETRY: The kill radius?
SGT. PETRY: Oh, we were definitely inside the kill radius. The kill radius, about five meters. So we would have definitely -- if not definitely dead, not pretty, to say the least. We -- we would have been really severely injured, sir, but more than likely fatal.
Q: How has -- I'm sorry, Jennifer Griffin, Fox News. How has receiving the Medal of Honor, or being nominated, changed your life?
SGT. PETRY: I don't know that it really has. I know my family's excited, but for me it's like any of -- it's not like any of my other medals, but the way I feel is it's another medal that I put on a uniform when I dress up. My other uniform is my work uniform, and that's what I do. It's a -- it's a decoration, it's not a depiction of who I am. So I am still me. The medal is just a decoration that they thought I deserved.
Q: Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service. Can you tell me, what do you bring away from your recovery process? Can you tell us a little bit about that? And what does that -- how does that inform any message you have for other service members, either still on duty or who have returned to civilian life, who are wounded?
SGT. PETRY: Through my recovery process I -- that's been the greatest time for me. I mean, 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. They're all wanting to go back, do some type of work.
And I tell you, they feed off of each other. It's a -- the way we do it in the military, it's always competition and encouragement and leadership. You see the leadership come up from the lowest levels when you have a lot of severely injured. They -- hey, it could be worse, it could be worse. Nobody thinks they're ever the worst, so you constantly -- I had a couple of guys, double amputees, coming up to me and saying -- man, that's got to be -- double leg amputees, and saying, that's got to be rough, losing your hand; I'd rather lose both my legs.
And I tell them, well, I have some advantages you don't have, and you have some advantages I don't have. I said, I can get up in the middle of the night and go use the bathroom without having to -- how-- jump around or whatever, however you do it. And they said, I guess you're right, it's not that bad. So they all have their advantages. And we try to motivate each other, ma'am.
Q: Sydney (inaudible), Learning From Veterans. How is the new hand? I mean, how long has it taken to get where you are? What level of functionality have you got back? What can you do and what can't you do, at least yet, that you used to do?
SGT. PETRY: The hand's great, first of all. This hand -- I have another hand -- this hand was made by Touch Bionics. I have another one made by a company called (inaudible) Bionics, that I just haven't become familiar enough with. I just got it a couple weeks -- about a week and a half ago.
But when I lost my hand, I thought, I'm going to have a hook. I lost my hand an honorable way; be cool to have a hook. My son, 7 years -- 5 years old at the time, he'd love a hook, be a pirate for Halloween. So, 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.
So I've just about done just about everything I wanted with it. I mean, it's never going to be as fast as a real hand to pull a trigger again or bounce a basketball, but for the most part there's -- the hand isn't the only adaption. There's multiple devices you could put on the top of it. The hand comes off, (inaudible) the prosthetic arm. You could add -- they gave a set of culinary knives, which I use constantly in the kitchen at my home cooking for a family of five.
But they have golf attachments -- you name it. They -- saw a few guys with bow-release attachments. And it's actually -- it's bettered my life, knowing -- with this amputee, because I picked up golf, and I had never golfed any before. And they said: We've got an attachment for golf. And I said: I'll take it; time to pick up a new sport. And I really haven't found too much that I need help with.
Q: How has it impacted what you're able to do as a ranger, as a soldier?
SGT. PETRY: As a ranger? Well, it's a -- I don't think it would have impacted me, but I let it because any -- of course, it's not your human flesh; it's a prosthetic. And to lead soldiers again -- I didn't want the -- I'm sure the opportunity would have been afforded to me, but I did not want to put any of my fellow rangers in harm's way on a shortfall of my arm giving out on something.
So I took a different route of approach, and I figured I had been through the wounded part of the service, and recovery, and my job was to -- I found a new job, so to speak. I was going to get out of the military. I was this -- I was really close to getting out of the military. I went back and forth on it for days upon days. My wife used to joke and say, “What is it today? Are we getting in, or are we getting out?” And I said, “I don't know. I don't know.”
But I kept going on the process, through the med board, and I almost got out, and I said, you know what? I had some -- I had some good job offers, and all the financial points pointed to get out, but I said, I love what I do and I miss -- I miss -- I'm going to miss my ranger-brothers if I leave. And this'll be my last opportunity if I don't stay in. And a job had come up where I could mentor, lead and still help the Army. So I said, I've been through the medical process; I know what a lot of it is. So I chose to help wounded soldiers -- wounded, ill and sick soldiers and their -- and their families, for the Special Operations Command in Florida. And that covers your Navy SEALs, rangers and special forces, 160th Special Operations Aviation and even the Air Force's Special Operations.
But it was a tough job, but you know, I love every minute of it. I told a lot people I work harder and longer hours in that job, but it's just as rewarding. So --
Q: I'm Chuck Hoskinson from Politico. Sergeant, when you -- as you look back at some of the other guys who've won the Medal of Honor (inaudible) snipers in Somalia, for example, the other people in Afghanistan and Iraq -- how do you -- do you ever compare yourself to them? How do you feel compared to them, knowing that, other than Sergeant Giunta, none of them are here and you are and he is (inaudible)?
SGT. PETRY: I'll tell you, sir, it's weird, because we grow up looking at those guys as our heroes. And as a young private -- I told a few people this -- you always think, oh, yeah, it'd be great to get the Medal of Honor, and you never see yourself there. It's something you always strive for -- but kind of the unreachable. And so I know it's tough, because it's not all about you, and it's what the medal represents to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
And I look at it, and I say -- and I know Major DeSantis here was wondering -- and I'll just go ahead and put it out there, because this sums it up pretty good -- but a lot of people were wondering, during the ceremony, what did you lean over and tell the president? And what I -- what I told him was, it makes it a little bit easier to receive this high honor today, sir, because knowing a lot of my heroes, my family and my friends are in the audience. And those are a lot of the-- when we think heroes, there's a lot -- those who are serving in the military, a lot of these generals and colonels and all these officers and sergeant majors and guys -- and young men and women when they join the service, who end up putting 20 years in, and still dedicated and saying, yes, I will, yes, I will -- 30 years, 30-plus years.
It's -- how is that not a hero? To me, it's easy when I see those guys and say, now this -- when I wear this, I wear it for you too because they're still answering the call, and those overseas too.
That -- that's part of -- where I got to say, hey, what's your message going to be? My message is, never forget your -- the -- your fallen heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice, but embrace the living, those continuing to serve in the uniformed services and those overseas continuing in the fight.
Q: Richard Sisk, The War Report Online. Congratulations, Sergeant.
SGT. PETRY: Thank you, sir.
Q: In one of the -- in the previous ceremony earlier this afternoon, it's mentioned that one of the generals told you, you know, about the medal, that your rucksack just got a little heavier.
SGT. PETRY: Yes, sir.
Q: And I wonder -- I've heard that you spoke to Staff Sergeant Giunta about the medal, about the responsibility to duty that comes with it. Can you speak to what that means, the responsibility you feel with the medal now and what you may have talked about to Sergeant Giunta?
SGT. PETRY: I talked to him for about an hour or so. We kind of -- he said it gets busy, and he said you become a hot commodity, so to speak, and everyone's going to want a piece of it.
And it's a -- it's a glorious thing, and I mean, it's a -- it's a happy occasion for our military and our nation. So many stories of sadness, I mean, to have a happy one's a great one. And so he said, just be careful that you don't say yes to everything because you can get overwhelmed, and I was the first one to say I have no problem with that because I know that I have a family that's important to me at home, and I look at it not more so much as a duty, but an opportunity.
And having a medal is a great opportunity to influence positive impact on younger soldiers, children -- walks of all life in our nation. I mean, it's a -- it's a great opportunity to do what you can with it.
Q: If you could give a message to younger soldiers who are coming up behind you who are in harm's way, what would you tell them based on your experiences?
SGT. PETRY: Give it -- give it -- give it your best. Always rely -- put your faith in those to your left and right, and may y'all come home safe. And thank you.
Q: Sergeant, thanks for being here today. My name is Matt (inaudible). I'm with KOAT in Albuquerque's Washington bureau.
What was it like to -- I know there's a lot of folks from New Mexico that came out to share this with you today. What was it like to have them here, and do you have any plans to head back to New Mexico anytime soon?
SGT. PETRY: It was -- it was great to have a lot of family here. I tell you, it was nice -- they even -- some friends from New Mexico as well. But it was awesome. It was -- it was a huge family reunion.
I told my wife and a lot of people. Normally, you don't get to choose this huge amount of people to show up and be with you during this joyous occasion. Usually it's a funeral, and it's yours, and you don't get to enjoy it. So to have everybody there -- and I know there are some that couldn't be there, but to have a good portion of them there, it was -- it was joyous.
And plans for New Mexico -- I believe, sir, end of the month.
MAJ. DESANTIS: All right, last one.
Q: Hi, Charlie (inaudible). Congratulations again. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
SGT. PETRY: Thank you, sir.
Q: Could you just talk a little bit about your deployment schedule, the amount of time that you put in the war zones? I think many Americans are unaware or forget about how often people like you have returned to the battlefield.
SGT. PETRY: I'll do you one better, and I'll tell you why I kept returning and why I kept reenlisting. It'll be -- I'll keep it short because I know I got family I've got to get back to, and I've got a busy schedule.
But I first deployed in 2002, and it was to Afghanistan, and I love going back to Afghanistan for the sheer reason that there's so much positive impact that we're doing over there. I mean, this last deployment that I went in 2011, February, I saw new roads that I had never seen before -- paved roads -- that were – where there was, like, mud and dirt and rivers that weren't able to be crossed that had bridges.
And you get to see a lot of stuff. I mean, I love to – because I've got kids, I love seeing the kids that are joyous to see you as you're driving out the gates or -- and they're not just saying, hey, give me water, give me water, they're -- or give me free stuff, they're giving you, hey, all right. We love USA.
And it's the positive impacts, just the schools being built. You're seeing a third-world country start forming into more than what it was nine, 10, 11 years ago, at a faster rate, too. And it's a --definitely a positive impact. You see so much great stuff, and that's why I love going back. And it's been keeping the nation over here safe. And I hope it grows for the people of Afghanistan like it has for Iraq and that they're able to sustain their own government and prosper.
MAJ. DESANTIS: All right. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate you all coming again. I'll stick around for a couple of minutes. I'll give you my contact info if you need any additional information. But again, thank you all for coming.