Geraldo Rivera: What Does 9/11 Mean to a True American Hero?

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Leroy Arthur Petry of Santa Fe, N.M., bows his head in prayer after he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama, for his valor in Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 12, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Leroy Arthur Petry of Santa Fe, N.M., bows his head in prayer after he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama, for his valor in Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 12, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2011.  (Charles Dharapak / AP Photo)

“So what does 9/11 mean to you as a Medal of Honor recipient,” I asked Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry, who earned the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in Afghanistan in 2008.

“Being a Medal of Honor recipient and representing so many in the Armed Services, it means quite a bit – knowing that the loss of life that day in our free country – knowing that it’s one of those dates the country will always remember, like John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Pearl Harbor.”

The handsome, humble hero whose gallant deeds are being recognized and celebrated by his grateful nation looked sharp in his tan Ranger beret, his uniform chest festooned with other medals for valor and service, including two Bronze Stars, the distinctive blue ribbon holding the Medal of Honor proudly hanging around his neck.

In intense U.S. Army Ranger training in Fort Benning, Georgia, at the time of the sneak attacks, the now 32-year old soldier – a three-year veteran, married, and father of four – was 22 at the time the planes hit the Towers. 

As the nation mobilized to hit back at those who inflicted so much pain and suffering on his nation, his Ranger Regiment was ordered on the first of what for him would be eight dangerous, deadly deployments to the thick of the fight, twice in bloody Iraq, and six times in brutal Afghanistan.

“When you were first assigned to Afghanistan, was there a feeling of both excitement and fear? How do you confront the possibility of violent death?”

“There was a little bit of nervousness – I wouldn’t say fear – because knowing the extent of training and great soldiers around me, I felt confident in our Armed Services.”

“Did the 9/11 attacks give you even more resolve to fight against the country’s enemies,” I asked as the Sgt. and I spoke on the sidewalk outside Fox News World Headquarters, American flags flying behind him, an admiring crowd gathering to hear what he said?

“I signed on the dotted line as many others did, just to go serve the country – whether it was peace or war. But it (the attack) definitely gave more emphasis as to reasons to go.”

Proud of him for many reasons, including his Latina mom and abuela back in his native New Mexico, not to mention his love of enchiladas jammed with green chile, I interviewed the soft-spoken hero as part of our upcoming special, “9/11, the Counter-Attack,” which airs Saturday night at 10 pm ET.

With my colleagues here at Fox News concentrating on remembering all we lost that awful morning 10 years ago, and on the rebuilding of our families our spirit, and the physical buildings at the center of the devastation once known as ‘Ground Zero,’ I took a different direction: I instead concentrating on our military response to those who declared war on the United States and our Allies, when they sent 19 Kamikaze terrorists to smash their hijacked aircraft into the Twin Towers. And Sgt. Petry’s actions in the field are symbolic of all our servicemen and women have given to their country.

By now the story of Sgt. Petry’s acts of incredible bravery under fire in Paktya Province are well-known. A Weapons Squad Leader with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he led his men on a raid to capture “a high-value target” hidden inside a heavily guarded house. As his squad moved to clear the courtyard, they came under heavy fire.

As Sgt. Petry described it to me, he and another Ranger were both wounded by automatic weapons fire from enemy fighters. Badly wounded in both legs, he kept firing at the enemy even as he helped drag his wounded colleague to cover. With bullets filling the air, lethal grenades were exchanged. One exploded nearby wounding more squad members. 

The president told the Sgt’s story during the inspiring White House Medal of Honor ceremony:

“And then a second grenade lands – this time, only a few feet away. Every human impulse would tell someone to turn away. Every soldier is trained to seek cover. That's what Sergeant Leroy Petry could have done. Instead, this wounded Ranger, this 28-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four, did something extraordinary. He lunged forward, toward the live grenade. He picked it up. He cocked his arm to throw it back.”

“With that selfless act, Leroy saved his two Ranger brothers….The force of the blast took Leroy's right hand. Shrapnel riddled his body. Said one of his teammates, 'I had never seen someone hurt so bad.'"

The woman who is helping Sgt. Petry heal from his grievous injuries, learn to walk again and to manipulate his incredibly agile prosthetic hand, his wife, Ashley Petry, was also with us. I asked what it was like for her to be at the White House when her husband was being honored. 

“That was a tremendous honor; tremendous…it was almost surreal. I still now think to myself, did that really happen? But just to be in that room and to know that he is receiving this (she said pointing to the Star) and that he saved lives of his men, I’m just proud, so proud of him.”

I answered, “We’re so proud of both of you, thank you.”

But read how the president concluded his remarks during the Medal of Honor presentation to Sgt. Petry.

“When the fight was won, as he lay in a stretcher being loaded onto a helicopter, one of his teammates came up to shake the hand that Leroy had left. ‘That was the first time I shook the hand of someone who I consider to be a true American hero,’ that Ranger said. Leroy Petry showed that true heroes still exist and that they're closer than you think."

Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino. 

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