Leroy Petry, the Medal of Honor and Intrepidity

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Leroy Petry

This past weekend, I attended the wedding of my Army roommate who’s still on active duty. Among the many conversations of the assembled veterans, all junior officers who fought together in Iraq, was the award of the Medal of Honor to Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry, who sacrificed his hand to save his fellow Rangers in Afghanistan. The feelings about the award were similar to last November, when President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to the first living veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Savatore Giuna: it’s about damn time.

As the highest award for valor in combat, Medals of Honor are supposed to be rare. The award itself has very specific criteria, the nomination process is incredibly hard and even when there is clear-cut proof of exceptional valor, sometimes heroism just isn’t enough, as the Marine Corps brass found out in the controversy surrounding the Medal of Honor nomination of Sgt. Rafael Peralta. But none of us understood why, after nearly nine years of war, after the incredible heroism we saw and after the well-documented sacrifices, no living hero was awarded the medal. A good editorial in the New York Times by the wife of an active duty soldier examines some of the issues and shows, I think, why we were so excited when Giunta received the award.

The language of the Medal of Honor’s citation is interesting: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Intrepidity is a word we don’t use much anymore. Depending on the definition, it means “fearless” or “adventurous” and calls to mind romantic exploration. But the truth is, Medal of Honor recipients are incredibly humble, especially about the actions that led to the award. Giunta described his own heroism this way: “I did what I did because in the scheme of this whole painting of the picture of that ambush, that was just my brushstroke. That picture wouldn’t have been complete without that brushstroke, and it was my brushstroke to take. I didn’t take the biggest brushstroke, and it wasn’t the most important brushstroke, it was just one that completed the picture.”

Two years ago, I had the honor to meet Col. (Ret.) Jack Jacobs, who as a young lieutenant led a combat advisor team in Vietnam. When his unit was ambushed, Jacobs organized the withdrawal where he was badly wounded in the head by shrapnel. Although he could barely see because so much blood was running in his eyes, Jacobs return again and again across an open field, killing enemy soldiers to save his wounded men.

Today, Jacobs is a military analyst for NBC. He’s outspoken and brash, and above all, incredibly funny. He talks candidly about his time in combat, but when you offer reverence for his heroism, he almost brushes you off. “There are a lot of people who were heroic that day and didn’t come back,” Jacobs has said. “Any Medal of Honor recipient will tell you the same thing: he’s wearing the award, not for himself, but for all those who can’t.”

It’s that kind of attitude, in addition to incredible heroism, that the medal honors. In interviews this week, Petry was just as humble about his accomplishments and unbelievably upfront about the gory details. When asked, “What does it feel like to have your hand blown off?” he sprinkled in some humor. “Another weird thought went into my mind,” Petry said, “where’s the Hollywood squirt? Why isn’t this thing spraying out a country mile?” After that, he said, reality and his training kicked in. He applied his own tourniquet to his arm and continued to lead his Rangers through the fight. He referred over and over again to his “younger guys,” the young Ranger privates under his command that he saved that day.

Petry is an awe-inspiring, humble person. He talks about enjoying his robotic prosthetic hand, saying, “I thought I was going to have a hook, which I was content with,” and describes learning to write left handed helping his son prepare for kindergarten: “He was getting ready for kindergarten, so I was getting ready with him. We were doing our ABCs and numbers.” If you haven’t seen this in its entirety, please take the half hour to do so.

The news that makes veterans happy is that there may be more Medals of Honor on the horizon. There are early reports that the White House is considering honoring the first living Marine from Iraq and Afghanistan,  but yesterday belonged to Petry. He handled the spotlight like he handled combat, he’s an incredible ambassador for all who’ve worn the uniform and he has thousands of us cheering in his corner.