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Prosthesis Helps Medal of Honor Hero Stay With Rangers


“There was a little bit of a meat skirt, for lack of better words, hanging around the edges. It was oozing. I could see the radius and ulna bones sticking up maybe about half an inch,” said Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who received the Medal of Honor on July 12, 2011, from the President of the United States. He recounted the moments after his hand was taken from him by a grenade during a May 26, 2008, combat operation in Afghanistan.

“It was vivid—where I could see the black marks from where the burns were. And a little bit of the dirt and the smell of explosives. I sat up and I grabbed it. And it’s a little strange,” Petry said. “But this is what was in my mind: ‘Why isn’t this thing spraying off into the wind like in Hollywood?’”

A seasoned Army Ranger—who was at the time on his seventh deployment in support of combat operations both in Iraq and Afghanistan—had to take charge of his own situation and of the young soldiers he led when insurgents opened fire on Petry and his men.

While wounded and under enemy fire, Petry led fellow soldiers to the cover of a chicken coop in a courtyard. The enemy continued to fire at the soldiers. Petry threw a thermobaric grenade toward the enemy. An insurgent returned with a grenade thrown over the chicken coop, which landed about 10 meters from the three Rangers, knocked them to the ground, and wounded two soldiers.

With three soldiers taking cover in the coop, an insurgent threw yet another grenade. This time, the grenade landed just a few feet from the three soldiers. “It was almost instinct—off training,” Petry said of his response to the situation. “It was probably going to kill all three of us. I had time to visually see the hand grenade. And I figure it’s got about a four-and-half-second fuse, depending on how long it has been in the elements and the weather and everything, and how long the pin has been pulled. I figure if you have time to see it, you have time to kick it, throw it, just get it out there.”

That’s when Petry picked up the grenade and threw it away from him and his buddies. As it turns out, he did have the time to save all three of their lives—but not time to save his hand. The grenade exploded as he threw it—destroying his throwing hand. “I actually didn’t think it was going to go off,” Petry said. “I didn’t really feel much pain. I didn’t know it had gone off and taken my hand until I sat back up and saw it was completely amputated at the wrist.” Petry put a tourniquet on his now severed arm to prevent further blood loss. That was something he said he knew how to do as a result of good Army training. Then he had to focus on those around him.

“The initial surgery when he came in was to basically take away what damaged tissue was left, and close his skin,” said Col. James Ficke, an orthopedic surgeon. “He had enough skin, but no functioning hand…by the time he got to us. We met when he was evacuated back to Brooke AMC. I was on call when he came in to the hospital. He was brought in with a group of patients who were injured in Afghanistan.”

While it was by chance that Petry landed in Ficke’s hospital while he was on duty, the doctor admits he kind of knew Petry was coming. Ficke and Petry’s commander had served together in Iraq. Petry was in his late 20s at the time he was wounded, and Ficke said it was devastating for a young man—in the prime of his life—to suffer such a catastrophic wound. “This is a guy who was a very active guy, a Ranger,” Ficke said. “He had just come back from Afghanistan—evacuated out. But a week before that, in the prime of health, fighting over there with his buddies.” From the beginning though, Ficke said Petry was gunning to get back to the fight.“He wanted to stay in the Army very much,” he said.

“He wanted to deploy again, he wanted to restore his life as much as he could. We talked a lot about what was possible and what we could help him with.”

Petry said he drew inspiration from those around him in the hospital—from fellow soldiers with severe burns and “phenomenal attitudes,” to those with injuries similar to his own. “The first person that came and visited me in the hospital was a female,” Petry said. “She was a double-amputee above the elbow. She had the greatest attitude. She was hanging out with the guys, having a great time. To see that kind of reaction, I thought I have nothing to complain about.”

Ficke said that he was able to close Petry’s wound over his wrist so the Ranger had a functioning wrist that could provide rotation. Ideally, a prosthetic hand would fit over that and he would use his own wrist to rotate the hand. But his own wrist was not as capable as it could have been, Ficke said.

“Sometimes his own ability to turn that wrist would not be as good as some of the prosthesis,” Ficke said. “He and I and the prosthetist all kind of talked and decided to have a shorter forearm and take away that wrist so that he could have a prosthesis that would do that with motors.” Removing a living part of his body to replace it with a more capable mechanical equivalent might be a tough choice—but Petry said he’s pleased with the results. “It’s a great hand,” Petry said. “It’s got a couple of sensors built in underneath the casting right above the skin. What’ll happen is, every muscle contraction you make will send signals up to the hand. Each finger, when it meets resistance, it will stop. So you got more dexterity to grab round shapes and stuff like that, and this particular hand is able to have a couple of other modes, where you can pinch and grasp.”

Petry’s prosthetist built a fitting to slide over Petry’s forearm so the hand can attach, and also placed sensors to pick up electrical signals from his muscles. After working with a therapist, Petry’s robotic hand moves with the very signals he used to use to control his own hand. “Occupational therapy was great,” he said. The therapist had Petry practice doing exercises, manipulating small objects so he could learn dexterity in his new hand.

Now Petry is pretty adept with his new robotic hand—and is using it back home with his family, and as he moves throughout the Army meeting new people who are interested in his story. “I could shake people’s hands today. I’m meeting people all the time. It feels great to actually shake their hands with my right hand,” he said. “I’m fortunate they have this type of medical technology. I thought I was going to end up with a set of hooks—and I got those as well. But when they handed me a prosthetic hand that functions pretty darn close to a real thing, I was ecstatic.”

It was two things, Petry said, that he thought about as he healed—and that drove him to push through the therapy so he could get back to the people he wanted to be around. “My family, and my second family—the 2nd Ranger Battalion,” he said. “I used to joke with my wife. I used to tell her, ‘Hey, I got my Alpha and Bravo team leaders at work. And you’re my Charlie team leader.’ We’re all one big happy family. I really wanted to get back and see the guys. I really miss the unit, the camaraderie, the high spirit. And to keep doing what I can for the Army.”

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