After three years in uniform wearing the nation’s highest military honor, Master Sgt. Leroy Petry is ready to set aside his medal for a little while.
He says it’s time for him to build a life as a civilian, to be more than a soldier. He’s happy to ease out of the nonstop commitments that come with being the second living veteran to receive the Medal of Honor for valor in Afghanistan.
“I don’t only want to be known as Leroy Petry with the Medal of Honor,” said Petry, 34, a Steilacoom resident who’s retiring from the Army next week. “I have other goals.”
But before he could go, the Army wanted to do something special for the 15-year veteran of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s elite 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. It threw him the party of his life on Wednesday, bringing together hundreds of friends and family members who wanted to toast the soldier.
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They celebrated him as much for his willingness to represent the military as a Medal of Honor recipient as they did for the heroism he showed in a May 2008 battle. Petry lost his right hand hurling a live grenade away from his wounded teammates.
“Leroy Petry, before and after the medal, represents all that is good about the American soldier,” said Adm. William McRaven, chief of the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command.
“You have handled this glorious burden with a grace and dignity that that makes the medal shine even brighter,” the admiral said.
Since President Obama awarded him the medal at a July 2011 White House ceremony, Petry’s life has been a whirlwind of events representing the Army in public and raising morale for soldiers of all ranks. He also is a liaison between the military and wounded Special Operations troops in the Northwest, advocating for patients in their recovery.
It’s not unusual to check out Twitter and see soldiers bragging about meeting Petry, shaking his prosthetic hand and receiving his special challenge coins. He’s known to unexpectedly show up at military events in the Puget Sound, where he’ll talk with youngsters and veterans.
“I have the ability to share this medal with a lot of people. I took it on myself to say yes to a lot of things,” he said.
Those moments can come in large venues, such as when he’s asked to speak about the military to Fortune 500 companies. Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz had a front-row seat at Petry’s retirement. They’ve worked together on initiatives to get companies hiring more veterans.
But the medal also sneaks up on Petry in quieter times, such as when he’s at the grocery store and someone wants to share a story with him.
Petry at those times takes a moment to remember his days as a wide-eyed young soldier who never imagined even meeting a Medal of Honor recipient.
“I know how it would have impacted me and I try to give that back,” he said.
He received the medal for the valor he showed in a May 2008 battle in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province. His Ranger team moved to clear a compound when they came under attack by enemy fighters.
Gunshots wounded Petry in both legs. An enemy grenade wounded two of his teammates. Petry saw a second grenade land near them. He picked it up knowing it could kill him, then threw it away.
Now he has a mechanical prosthetic that operates like a human hand, except it can rotate 360 degrees. His 10-year-old son, Landon, won a science contest at an elementary school describing how it works.
“If you have to lose a hand, this is the next best thing to have,” Petry said.
Petry now is looking forward to withdrawing somewhat from the public. He plans to spend more time with his family – wife, Ashley, and four children – in Steilacoom and to go to college to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management.
“I needed to spend time with my family, and I needed to spend some time on me,” he said.
He expects to continue representing the Army from time to time.
“I am leaving the military, but not for long. I will stay involved and it has been the greatest honor of my life,” he told his guests Wednesday.
Sometimes he meets local Medal of Honor recipients Col. Bruce Crandall and Col. Joe Jackson, each of whom were honored for heroism in Vietnam.
The Vietnam veterans will pat him on the back and remind him, “They just signed you up for 65 years of this,” Petry said, laughing.
He almost cried a couple times during Wednesday’s ceremony. “We are family,” he told the audience, explaining that he was willing to give his life out of love for his fellow Rangers, as they would have done for him.
He said he was thankful that so many people joined him.
“It’s not often you get something this great,” he said. “Usually it’s a funeral, and you’re not able to enjoy it.”