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Honoring Special Forces People and Their Stories

Special Forces are considered the military’s elite - the Rangers, Green Berets, and Navy SEALS among others.  And the elite of the elite are the Special Forces who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Two of them were recognized this week and their names added to the Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

"As soon as my hand opened up, the grenade exploded and I sat back up and my hand was completely gone at the wrist like it had been severed with a circular saw." - Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry.

Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry, an Army Ranger, watched as his name was unveiled. It is one of 45 names etched into the black granite tiles.

His Medal of Honor citation states that Petry risked his life above and beyond the call of duty and “undeniably saved his fellow Rangers” on May 26, 2008.

“I still look at the day and I’m still in amazement that I’m here,” Petry told reporters after the ceremony. “My youngest son (Landon) said it the best. He said ‘I’m really proud of my dad but more happy that some of his friends are still alive.’”

Petry was on his sixth deployment to Afghanistan. His team was attacked while clearing a compound of suspected insurgents. He was shot in both legs, took cover and fired back. Then a grenade hit wounding two Rangers just behind him. Petry turned and spotted a second grenade next to his wounded men. He picked it up to throw it as hard as he could.

“As soon as my hand opened up, the grenade exploded and I sat back up and my hand was completely gone at the wrist like it had been severed with a circular saw,” Petry said with the analytical calmness of a professional soldier. “It went through my mind for a split second, why isn’t the blood squirting into the air, then reality kicked in. I got back to my good medical training put on a tourniquet, called up on the radio, checked on my younger guys.”

Petry remained coherent,  insisting his fellow Rangers be cared for first. He wanted to get back in the fight.

Even now, despite his reliance on a prosthetic hand, Petry continues to push to get into the action according Admiral William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command based at MacDill.

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Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Admiral William McRaven, commander of US Special Operations Command.

“While Leroy has not shied away from going back to combat creating much anxiety among the generals, admirals and sergeant majors, we have also put him to work in other ways,” McRaven told the audience assembled for the ceremony.

In fact, Petry just returned from a visit to Afghanistan. He’s now the liaison officer for the SOCOM Care Coalition which oversees care for wounded Special Forces and their families.

Petry said he was humbled and honored to meet the father, mother and two sisters of the second Medal of Honor Special Forces recipient, Staff Sergeant Robert Miller, nicknamed Robbie. 

Admiral McRaven described Miller’s valor after his team was ambushed in an Afghanistan valley.

“Robbie drew their fire away from his team and toward his direction,” McRaven said. “Despite his wounds he ferociously fought, killing at least 16 insurgents and wounding dozens more. Eventually his weapon fell silent. Despite being grievously wounded, he took the fight to the enemy and saved the lives of seven of his team and 15 Afghan soldiers. “

One of those lives Miller saved that day was his teammate and friend Air Force Tech Sergeant Robert Gutierrez, a combat controller responsible for calling in air strikes.

“It’s hard when you were there. It’s hard to explain the actions of one man, what he would do, how far he would go. It’s hard to describe,” Gutierrez said pausing occasionally to find the words. “All that I can say is that Robbie gave his life for me and for the rest of 3312 (Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3312) for those Afghan soldiers and he stayed in the fight until the end.”

What amazed Gutierrez even more than the Green Beret’s valiant battle was when he and another sergeant advanced to help Miller.

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Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A photo Staff Sergeant Robert Miller in Afghanistan and an account of his valor during a battle on Jan. 25, 2008 when the Green Beret was killed in action saving the lives of seven teammates and 15 Afghan soldiers.

“A dying man still points, on his back, and says they’re right there” Gutierrez said. “And me as a J-TAC (Joint Terminal Attack Coordinator) being able to see it and do my job because of him. There is nothing that I could ever do or say to repay what he did. So, I wanted to be here today and give tribute and tell you Mr. and Mrs. Miller thank you.”

Gutierrez did one more thing to thank his friend, he named his newborn son after Robert “Robbie” Miller.

The Special Operations Memorial is another way Miller’s legacy will endure for hundreds of years said McRaven.

“This is about honoring the people and the stories that breathe life into the granite walls that surround us,” McRaven said. “The black stone observes and promotes our heritage, a heritage and legacy that these two Medal of Honor recipients exemplified during their service to the nation.”

And much like the Special Forces known as the “quiet professionals,” the memorial is quietly tucked away on MacDill Air Force Base not readily accessible to the public.

It’s a spear shaped monument with gradually sloping walls. The names of Special Forces many killed in action are scribed on the walls. At the tip of the spear is the Wall of Honor where the names of Special Forces who have been awarded the Medal of Honor or Victoria Cross etched into the black granite tiles. Three flags fly above, the U.S. Flag, the MIA/POW Flag and the Special Operations Command Flag.

At the monument’s center is a bronze statue of a Special Forces member – weapon in hand – ever vigilant watching over his teammates.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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