According to Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry, the wound was gruesome. “It was oozing. I could see the radius and ulna bone sticking up maybe about half an inch,” he said.
Petry, who received the Medal of Honor placed by the president of the United States, recounted the moment after his hand was taken from him by a grenade during a May 26, 2008, combat operation in Afghanistan.
“It was vivid — where I could see the black marks from where the burns were. And a little bit of the dirt and the smell of explosives. I sat up and I grabbed it. And it’s a little strange,” Petry said. “But this is what was in my mind: ‘Why isn’t this thing spraying off into the wind like in Hollywood?’ ”
Petry was assigned to Company D, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Petry’s actions came as part of a rare daylight raid to capture a high-value target.
“It’s a little out of the norm,” Petry said, of conducting such a mission with the sun over their head. “It’s never a good thing. We don’t like to because our odds are a little lower. But just like any other mission, we said we’re going to go out there and do what we do. Execute the mission.”
Petry’s Ranger unit, he said, runs roughly 400 missions during a four-month deployment.
“You can see two missions in one night,” he said. “That’s how busy the ops tempo is. We go out and come back in and then — hey, wait, there’s something else, go back out. OK. Drive on.”
During his last mission, Petry was to locate himself with the platoon headquarters in the target building once it was secured. There, he was to serve as the senior noncommissioned officer at the site for the remainder of the operation.
But things quickly got dangerous for Petry and his team. Insurgents opened fire on Petry and his men.
Petry had fellow Ranger Pvt. 1st Class Lucas Robinson at his side. The two were to clear the outer courtyard of the target building. It was there the two first saw the enemy.
“I remember seeing the guy out of my peripheral vision,” Petry said. “Two guys with AKs at their hip, just spraying. And one happened to strike me right in the thighs. I didn’t know I was hit in both thighs, but it hit my left thigh.”
Robinson was also hit, Petry said. “He was struck right in his ribcage on his left side and he continued along and followed behind me.”
While wounded and under enemy fire, Petry led Robinson to the cover of a chicken coop in the courtyard. The enemy continued to deliver fire at the two soldiers.
Petry reported contact was made with the enemy, and as a result, team member Sgt. Daniel Higgins moved to the outer courtyard. As Higgins moved toward the chicken coop to meet with the two wounded soldiers, Petry threw a thermobaric grenade toward the enemy. That explosion caused a lull in enemy fire.
As Higgins evaluated the wounds of both Petry and Robinsion, an insurgent threw a grenade over the chicken coop. The grenade landed about 10 meters from the three Rangers, knocked them to the ground, and wounded Higgins and Robinson.
With three soldiers taking cover in the coop, an insurgent threw yet another grenade. This time, the grenade landed just a few feet from the three soldiers — much closer than the earlier grenade.
“It was almost instinct — off training,” Petry said of his response to the situation. “It was probably going to kill all three of us. I had time to visually see the hand grenade. And I figure it’s got about a four-and-half second fuse, depending on how long it has been in the elements and the weather and everything and how long the pin has been pulled. I figure if you have time to see it you have time to kick it, throw it, just get it out there.”
That’s when Petry picked up the grenade and threw it away from him and his buddies. As it turns out, he did have the time to save all three of their lives — but not time to save his hand.
The grenade exploded as he threw it — destroying his throwing arm.
“I actually didn’t think it was going to go off,” Petry said. “I didn’t really feel much pain. I didn’t know it had gone off and taken my hand until I sat back up and saw it was completely amputated at the wrist.”
Petry put a tourniquet on his now severed arm, to prevent further blood loss. That was something he said he knew how to do as a result of good Army training. Then he had to focus on those around him.
“The younger guys next to me were kind of still in shock and awe,” Petry said, and he tasked himself do what it is that makes Americans marvel at their soldiers. “Maintaining control, maintaining awareness, trying to remain calm — so they stay calm.”
He radioed for help — but the fighting wasn’t over. Staff Sgt. James Roberts engaged the enemy and was able to suppress their fire. But another insurgent began firing, and fatally wounded Spc. Christopher Gathercole. Higgins and Robinson returned fire and killed the enemy.
Moments later, Sgt. 1st Class Jerod Staidle, the platoon sergeant, and Spc. Gary Depriest, the platoon medic, arrived in the outer courtyard. After directing Depriest to treat Gathercole, Staidle moved to Petry’s position. Staidle and Higgins then assisted Petry as he moved to the casualty collection point.
Within a week, he’d be back in the United States.
While passing through hospitals back to the United States, doctors had operated to remove damaged or dead tissue from Petry’s arm, in part, to prevent infection. But when he arrived stateside his wound was still open, the bone was still exposed and it was wrapped with gauze.
“The initial surgery when he came in was to basically take away what damaged tissue was left, and close his skin,” said Col. James Ficke, an orthopedic surgeon. “He had enough skin, but no functioning hand … by the time he got to us. When he looked at his hand at the time of his wound, when he put the tourniquet on, he had tissue — skin and broken bones. But no fingers or anything.”
Ficke is Petry’s doctor, and also serves as the current chairman of the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He also became a friend with Petry.
“We met when he was evacuated back to Brooke AMC,” Ficke said. “I was on call when he came in to the hospital. He was brought in with a group of patients who were injured in Afghanistan.”
While it was by chance that Petry landed in Ficke’s hospital while he was on duty, the doctor admits he kind of knew Petry was coming. Ficke and Petry’s commander had served together in Iraq.
“He emailed me and said to look out for him,” Ficke said. “I knew that Sergeant Petry was going to be one of the guys who I was going to have a relationship with for a long time.”
Petry was in his late 20s at the time he was wounded and Ficke said it was devastating for a young man — in the prime of his life — to suffer such a catastrophic wound.
“This is a guy who was a very active guy, a Ranger,” Ficke said. “He had just come back from Afghanistan — evacuated out. But a week before that, in the prime of health, fighting over there with his buddies.”
From the beginning though, Ficke said Petry was gunning to get back to the fight.
“He wanted to stay in the Army, very much,” he said. “He wanted to deploy again, he wanted to restore his life as much as he could. We talked a lot about what was possible and what we could help him with.”
Ficke said that after discussing it with Petry, the best option was to remove his wrist and give him a prosthesis.
“It’s a great hand,” Petry said of his prosthesis.
After working with a therapist, Petry’s robotic hand moves with the very signals he used to use to control his own hand.