WASHINGTON — Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry could have sought cover four years ago when a grenade landed near him and two of his fellow soldiers, all of them caught in an Afghanistan compound full of insurgents. That's what every soldier is trained to do.
But he didn't. Petry picked the grenade up and threw it just as it exploded.
"This wounded Ranger, this 28-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four did something extraordinary," President Barack Obama said Tuesday. "What leads a person to risk everything so that others might live?"
Obama presented Petry the Medal of Honor in the East Room of the White House for Petry's gallant act that "undeniably saved his fellow Rangers from being severely wounded or killed."
While the ceremony honored a single act, Obama said it also was a chance to honor an entire generation that had borne the burden of the country's security for 10 years.
The president's speech narrated Petry's bravery during a mission in which Petry, then a staff sergeant, was grievously wounded, and even lost his right hand, yet still maintained the presence of mind to lead his soldiers.
The room was full of his fellow Rangers, Petry's wife, Ashley, their four children — Brittany, Austin, Reagan and Landon — his parents and other family and friends, along with some elected officials.
"It was really humbling to be at something like that, to see this young man with kids and family who was wiling to risk his life for fellow soldiers in a such a courageous way," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Petry seemed nervous when he later gave brief remarks to reporters outside the White House. He thanked his family, his doctors and nurses, his fellow Rangers. He said that although he has been singled out, all men and women in uniform were heroes.
"They sacrifice every day and deserve your continued support and recognition," Petry said. "Whenever you have a chance or opportunity to thank them, shake their hand, give them a pat on the back for the job they've done, because they've earned it. That's the greatest reward any service member can get: a simple thank you."
In an emotional moment during Obama's speech, the sister, brother and grandmother of Spec. Christopher Gathercole stood up, to applause. Gathercole died in the same raid that took Petry's hand.
Petry is the ninth American to receive the country's highest honor for valorous actions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he's only the second person to receive the honor alive.
Petry, 31, serves in the 75th Ranger Regiment headquarters unit at the Lewis-McChord base in Washington state.
On May 26, 2008, he joined other Rangers in a high-risk daylight mission in the Paktia province of eastern Afghanistan to find insurgents and, more importantly, a top al Qaida commander.
While Petry and a fellow soldier were clearing a building, Petry was shot in both legs and bled badly.
The two took cover behind a chicken coop along with another soldier. An insurgent grenade exploded nearby, wounding Petry's comrades.
A second grenade landed a few feet away.
Petry grabbed the grenade and threw it. It exploded in his hand.
"Our heroes are all around us," Obama said.
Petry's leg injuries sometimes make it hard for him to stand, and he could have retired. Instead, he has re-enlisted in the Army and returned to Afghanistan for another mission. At Lewis-McChord headquarters, Petry tracks and monitors injured Rangers returning home from war.
Bolted to Petry's prosthetic arm is a plaque with the names of those in his regiment who fell in combat.
"They are, quite literally, part of him, just as they will always be part of America," Obama said.
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