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From our Hall of Valor:
One soldier’s career: Ranger with eight deployments, lost his hand to a grenade while saving his buddies, pinned with the Medal of Honor, met presidents and celebrities, smiling in dress uniform as grand master at parades and speaker at university commencements.
Now it’s time for the next chapter.
Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry retired from the Army on Wednesday and was promoted to master sergeant in a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, three years after receiving the nation’s highest award for valor.
His next challenge?
“The hard part for me,” Petry said in an interview Tuesday, “is going to be choosing what I put on every day for clothing.”
There’s one thing he knows he will wear, when the occasion calls for it.
“A lot of people say that medal is heavy to wear around one’s neck,” Petry said, but “it gets lighter on me the more people I share it with, knowing that it doesn’t really belong to me, it represents all the men and women who have served, who continue to serve and especially those who paid ultimate sacrifice.”
Petry, who turns 35 on July 29 (his official retirement date), was the second living soldier on active duty to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He received the MoH on July 12, 2011, for saving the lives of fellow soldiers when he picked up a grenade and threw it away from them during an intense fight in Paktya province, Afghanistan on May 26, 2008. He was on his seventh deployment and assigned to D Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
He had already been shot through both legs when he saw the enemy grenade and instantly knew the danger. “This husband and father of four did something extraordinary,” said President Obama during the award ceremony in 2011. “He lunged forward, toward the live grenade. What compels such courage?”
After two deployments to Iraq and six to Afghanistan, Petry was assigned to Joint-Base Lewis McChord, Washington, where he has been a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and attached to Special Operations Command, serving as a liaison for the Special Operations Command Care Coalition. He works to help other troops wounded in the war zone.
In his 15 years in the Army, he has been a grenadier, squad automatic rifleman, fire team leader, squad leader, operations sergeant and a weapons squad leader.
One of the Army’s most recognizable soldiers, an iconic figure of heroism with a prosthetic hand, he has sought to share the spotlight with fellow soldiers.
He had originally planned to stay in the Army for 20 years or more. After a medical board last fall, and continuing to deal with results of his injuries, he decided it was time to retire.
The next mission for Petry is finishing his associate’s degree at Pierce College in Washington, then his bachelor’s from the University of Washington, majoring in business management with a minor in accounting. He plans to open a business or a franchise, but says he hasn’t decided exactly what type of business that will be.
He’s had job offers, he said, but his goal is to get his degree and build on his skills as a soldier.
“I think it will only enhance the skills I’ve learned in the military,” he said. “If I go into business it won’t be because of favoritism, it will be because I can do the job well with the skills I possess. I don’t expect favoritism.
“A lot of people are hiring veterans and it shouldn’t just be ‘hire a veteran’ for publicity, it should be because of their skill set that they bring to the work force.”
For soldiers wondering where their combat skills will get them, and those making the transition to civilian life, Petry has encouragement. Many skills learned in training, that aren’t specific to an MOS, apply to the business world.
“Everyone thinks, ‘oh, you’re an 11 Bravo, you can only be a car salesman.’ You can be anything you want to,” he said. “You possess the skills — the leadership, time management, numerous skills that you can’t learn in a classroom. Accountability of property, accountabililty of personnel, everything you do in counseling applies to the business world.”
To soldiers staying in, it’s possible the Army is about to offer an experience they haven’t seen in more than 12 years: training and maybe even traveling in a peacetime environment.
“The dream I had of traveling and seeing the world ... like you heard people during peacetime do, may be coming back so it’s something they have to look forward to,” Petry said.
And he will miss the Army.
“Fortunately I’m staying in the area [of JBLM] so when I miss it, I’ll come back and visit,” he said. “I’ll miss a lot. It’s been great, hanging out with the guys, going out to the range, shooting guns, jumping out of planes, fast roping. You name it, it’s all been great.”
He has met celebrities and leaders while in his Army role, and says the most memorable occasion was meeting former President George W. Bush in Texas. They talked about golf and life and other things.
“His humility is what captured me,” Petry said. “He is always looking out for military people. He does it not for the attention but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Petry says he tries to stay in touch with battle buddies and with the soldiers he saved, then-Staff Sgt. Daniel Higgins and then-Pvt. 1st Class Lucas Robinson.
He remembers those who didn’t make it back, including Spc. Christopher Gathercole, who was shot and killed in the battle in which Petry and others were wounded.
“I’ll always remember him as a kid with a smile on his face, and [who] always helped out the junior Rangers as well as the peers. He was always a hard charger and a go-getter.”
plans to stay in touch with other recipients of the Medal of Honor, and says when he hears of newly approved recipients, he tries to contact them as early as possible to let them know what to expect.
His Army days are done, but Petry is prepared for a lifetime of ceremonies when he will wear the medal again.
“I will definitely continue to share it my entire life,” he said.