GATESVILLE — As the term “hero” is casually tossed around these days to include sports figures, pop singers and comic book characters, it is important to refocus on the genuine article.
Today America salutes the 21 million U.S. military veterans and the 1.4 million men and women serving on active duty.
While the tribute is well deserved, anyone who has worn a military uniform knows the term “hero” doesn’t apply to everyone in the ranks. It is — or should be — an elite designation.
Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry makes the cut.
When I met Petry in September, he greeted me with a warm smile and a firm, friendly handshake with his prosthetic right hand.
Petry and a couple dozen of his buddies were milling around in a hangar at the Hamilton airport waiting for the rain to let up so they could continue hunting wild hogs by helicopter.
The look on his face and the tone of his voice made it clear there was no place Petry would rather be than hanging out with other wounded warriors at the pig hunt sponsored by the HALO for Freedom Warrior Foundation.
“Awesome!” he said as his smile grew wider.
On May 26, 2008, then-Staff Sgt. Petry was a weapons squad leader with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, in Paktya Province, Afghanistan, when his unit came under automatic weapons fire from enemy fighters.
Shot through both legs and still under heavy enemy fire, Petry grabbed a live enemy grenade that landed near his men.
As he threw the grenade it detonated, taking off his right hand at the wrist and spraying him with shrapnel.
Badly wounded, Petry was able to apply a tourniquet to his arm and radio for help.
Petry’s actions “undeniably saved his fellow Rangers from being severely wounded or killed,” according to the citation awarding him the Medal of Honor in 2011.
Two years later, Petry is helping other wounded warriors come to grips with their challenges and learn to smile again.
“The sense of community and support is humbling,” Petry told me.
That’s a hero.