Living Medal of Honor recipients are somewhat rare. There are only 79 living out of nearly 3,500 recipients since the highest military honor was created during the Civil War.
So, it was no surprise that 200 students, veterans and members of the public came out to hear Medal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant (Ret.) Leroy Petry deliver the keynote address at the University of South Florida Veterans Day Ceremony in Tampa.
After his 20 minute speech, numerous veterans stood in line waiting patiently to greet the Army Ranger personally, shake his hand and take a photo with him. Later the Medal of Honor recipient visited with members of the USF football team to talk about resiliency.
Resiliency is something Petry knows about.
On May 26, 2008 as a weapons squad leader in Afghanistan, Petry was shot in both legs as his unit was clearing a courtyard. Two Rangers, wounded by a grenade, were next to him.
Petry saw a second grenade near his men. He picked it up to throw it clear and the grenade exploded, severing his right hand. That is when Petry’s training kicked in. He applied his own tourniquet and then got on the radio to call for support. Later, he refused treatment until medics first cared for the other wounded.
Petry retired just a few months ago. And like many of the student veterans in the audience, he is taking on a new mission: college and spending more time with family.
“I have served eight tours and I know that sounds like a lot. But I’d love to be nowhere else but with my guys right now who just returned from trip number 17 overseas,” Petry told the crowd. “They want (to) and are still making a difference.”
He said in an interview afterward that the toughest part of transitioning into civilian life is balancing his drive to be with his battle buddies versus spending time with his family.
“I had an opportunity to go overseas with some guys and it was over Halloween and this might be my son’s last year trick-or-treating,” Petry said. “I had to choose one or the other.”
He chose to spend Halloween with his youngest son.
The hardest part of his retirement as a Medal of Honor recipient has been managing his time. He has to balance requests for appearances with time for his family and education.
“I know this award has kind of put me in a different spot where that will come first. But I don’t want to be known only as ‘Leroy Petry Medal of Honor recipient,” Petry said. “I want to be known as ‘Hey! That’s a good guy over there just helping me out.’”
Petry starts a new chapter this January when he heads back to college to study economics. He will still do public appearances. And he’ll shake hands – with his prosthetic hand - and take photos with all who ask - just like he did with countless veterans and students at USF.
You can listen to MSgt. Leroy Petry's full speech here.