THE BLOG

Of Battles and Robot Hands

Army Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry was just over a month into his sixth war deployment when he got the nod to be part of a daylight raid to capture a "high value" Taliban leader holed up in the most desolate part of Afghanistan's Paktika Province.

On May 26, 2008, Petry and his fellow Rangers loaded onto two Chinook helicopters and launched out of Forward Operating Base Sharana, not knowing exactly how much resistance they might be facing on the other end.

A hail of small-arms fire gave the Rangers their answer as soon as the helicopters touched down near the isolated compound close to the Pakistan border. Seeking cover and some breathing room to assess the situation, Petry followed his squad leader through a hole in the wall at one corner of the compound.

Inside the courtyard, the Rangers happened upon two enemy fighters shooting AK-47s from the hip. Petry was hit in the thigh. "The first thought that went in my mind was [a line from the movie] Forrest Gump, " Petry says. " 'Something bit me!' "

Petry and another soldier ran for cover behind a chicken coop within the courtyard. Once in place, the Rangers assessed their wounds while simultaneously working to secure their position. While the other Ranger attended to the bullet wound below his armpit, Petry threw a grenade at the enemy across the courtyard.

The grenade exploding allowed enough cover for an additional Ranger to make it across the courtyard and behind the chicken coop. Petry directed the new arrival to assist the other wounded Ranger, then jumped on the radio to transmit their situation.

Petry's concern at that point was that the enemy would charge around the corner without warning, but the insurgents had other intentions. A huge explosion knocked the three Rangers to the ground.

They sat up once the first blast subsided. "What the heck was that?" one of the others asked.

"They're throwing grenades," Petry said.

As Petry looked across to the other corner of the coop where the other two Rangers were attempting to secure their position, he noticed a pineapple-shaped device rolling between them. Without any hesitation, he reached down and grabbed the grenade. He threw it away as hard as he could, but it went off as soon as he opened his hand.

Petry's swift action saved the lives of the other two Rangers, but his heroism came at significant cost. As he flopped to the ground, he saw that his right hand been blown off.

"It was like it had been cut off with a circular saw," he recounts. "For the lack of a better term, it was like a 'meat skirt' with little flaps of skin around the wrist."

As he considered the extent of the damage to his arm, he had another strange thought: "Why isn't this thing spraying into the wind like in Hollywood?" The heat of the explosion had cauterized the wound.

Petry applied a tourniquet and updated their situation over the radio, including the fact that he'd just lost his hand. "How crazy does that sound on the radio," he says with a laugh. "What do you mean you 'lost' your hand?"

A few minutes later, one of the Ranger first sergeants ran up to them and helped Petry to his feet saying, "C'mon, brother, we're going to get you out of here."

Petry pushed his hand away and replied, "You're not taking me anywhere until you kill those SOBs."

The first sergeant saw that Petry was basically stable, so he, as Petry says, "did the right thing by fighting the fight first."

Once the enemy was neutralized, the Rangers gathered at the casualty collection point. Petry saw that others had been wounded. There was also one KIA.

Only 17 minutes had elapsed since the assault's initial insert.

One of the medics ran over and told Petry they needed to work on him. Petry grabbed his wrist and said, "No, I'm fine. I don't have any pain. Work on the others."

The medic pointed to his leg and said, "I'm not talking about your hand."

Petry looked down to his blood-soaked pants and only then did he realize the initial bullet had not lodged in his right thigh as he had thought, but had traveled through both legs. The medic cut off his pants and started treating the newly discovered wounds.

"The second miracle that day -- besides that the hand grenade didn't kill me -- is that the bullet that went through my legs and didn't hit any arteries," Petry says.

The medevac helicopter arrived before too long, and Petry was carried to it on a litter. "You saved us," one of the Rangers who had been behind the chicken coop shouted over the rotor noise. But Petry's only thought was that he was departing the fight prematurely. "I didn't want to leave," he says.

Petry was flown back to FOB Sharana and then transported by a fixed-wing aircraft to Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul. "About 15 minutes into the flight, the drugs kicked in so I don't remember much about that part," he says.

He was quickly taken from Afghanistan to the medical facility at Landstuhl, Germany, where he spent one night before being flown back to the states. Ultimately, he arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to start his recovery.

In the hospital, Petry had plenty of time to consider his fate, and he admits there were times when his frustration and anger got the best of him. Having only one hand takes some getting used to.

"I had to remember that my life has changed," he says. "I had to find ways to adapt."

Being in the hospital with other wounded warriors -- like those who'd suffered burns across their entire bodies -- offered him perspective and motivation. "We push each other," he says. "It's just like in the regular military."

Once his stump had healed enough, Petry was offered a range of prosthetic options, including the basic hook that many amputees prefer because of its superior gripping power. But he decided to try the most high tech option: Touch Bionics' iLimb Pulse.

The iLimb Pulse basically has two parts: the robotic hand and the sleeve that slips over the forearm. Sensors within the sleeve pick up muscle movement near the surface of the forearm, which in turn programs the digits in the robotic hand to move.

"It basically runs off the same muscles you'd use to open and close your hand," Petry explains. The robotic hand also rotates 360-degrees at the wrist, which comes in handy when trying to reach things in out-of-the-way places.

Petry recently upgraded from the Pulse to the iLimb Ultra, which has better tuned micro-motors and more titanium components. He also can replace the hand with an array of attachments including tools or cutlery.

"I never golfed until they told me they had a golf attachment," he says. "Now I love the sport."

And as an added feature, Petry had a special placard attached to his base plate with all the names of the Army Rangers from the Second Ranger Battalion who had been killed in combat since Operation Urgent Fury in 1984. "It reminds me that men are still out there fighting," he says pointing to the placard. "Hopefully, it doesn't have to get any bigger."

Six weeks after he got to San Antonio, his company commander and first sergeant informed him that he'd been put in for the Medal of Honor as a result of his actions on that fateful day in Afghanistan. It took three years for the medal to be approved -- days filled with occasional doubts as to whether those in the chop chain would judge his performance under fire as fit for the military's highest honor for valor. After all, he was a Ranger and "above and beyond" was sort of expected of them; plus, he'd survived the battle and at that point the Medal of Honor had still not been bestowed on any living service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.(Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta received his in November 2010.)

In time, all the administrative wickets were passed. Petry had the medal draped around his neck by President Obama in a White House ceremony on July 12, 2011.

Receiving the Medal of Honor comes with instant, potentially overwhelming celebrity. At AFCEA West 2012, a naval warfare convention held in San Diego this week, Petry was surrounded by well-wishers wherever he went. It was hard for conference organizers to get him from commitment to commitment because of the constant stream of those looking for a photo op or an autograph or simply wanting to offer words of respect and thanks.

Petry takes it all in stride.

"I get to meet a lot of influential people, and view that as an opportunity to network on behalf of wounded veterans," he says. "This is how I serve now."

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