Latino Soldier Receives Medal of Honor

When President Obama walked into the East Room at the White House shortly after 2 p.m., beside him was the Latino who today became only the second living Medal of Honor awardee since the Vietnam War.

Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry, 31, was honored for saving the lives of two fellow Rangers despite being shot in both legs and losing a hand during a daring daytime mission in Afghanistan in 2006.

“Where does courage like that come from?” Obama asked in a speech praising Petry during the ceremony, going on to name the soldier’s family as his foundation.

"We see it in the sense of duty instilled by his family, who joins us today—his father Larry, his mother Lorella, and his four brothers. Growing up, the walls of their home were hung with pictures of grandfathers and uncles in uniform, leading a young Leroy to believe “that’s my calling, too.”

Petry, whose mother is Mexican American, was part of a team of Army Rangers that flew to a compound after intelligence suggested that there was a high-level al-Qaeda operative there.

When Petry and another Ranger entered the compound, an insurgent fired on them, hitting Petry in both legs. Bleeding badly, he led the other Ranger to cover behind a chicken coop and radioed for support. He threw a grenade at the enemy while a third Ranger came to help. A grenade from the enemy lands nearby, wounding his comrades, then a second one, only a few feet away. “Every human impulse would tell someone to turn away,” Obama said at the ceremony, but Petry rushed to it, picked it up and threw it back at the enemy, blowing off his hand.

"Even his fellow Rangers were amazed at what Leroy did next," Obama recounted. "Despite his grievous wounds, he remained calm. He actually put on his own tourniquet. And he continued to lead, directing his team, giving orders — even telling medics how to treat his wounds."

Petry’s bravery and sacrifice, the president said, "speaks to the very essence of America — the spirit that says, no matter how hard the journey, no matter how steep the climb, we don't quit."

Petry has been in the Army since 1999. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times, including once since his injury.

During the ceremony, attended by Petry’s mother Lorella Tapia, as well as Petry’s wife Ashley and four kids, the soldier sat to the right of the lectern, in front of a framed Medal of Honor flag, light blue with 13 white stars. He looked around the room, making eye contact with members of the audience, smiling and looking relaxed.

As he clapped when Obama acknowledged audience members Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who received the Medal of Honor in November, as well as the family of Specialist Christopher Gathercole, the sole soldier to die during the incident, Petry’s high-tech metal prosthetic hand was visible. After a citation detailing his actions was read, Obama placed the star-shaped gold medal set off by a sky blue ribbon featuring 13 white stars around his neck. Petry did not speak at the ceremony. The Medal of Honor is the Armed Forces’ loftiest award.

But afterward, Petry, wearing a tan beret, black uniform jacket and blue pants and black boots, made an emotional statement in the White House Lawn in which he praised his fellow Rangers and all those who serve in the military. “To be singled out like this is very humbling,” he said.