SANTA FE – Hurtling from 9,000 feet toward downtown Santa Fe, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry had one overriding emotion as his parachute pulled and swayed in the wind.
“I was just in awe,” he said.
Later, on the ground, Petry reminisced that the last time he’d seen the City Different from the same vantage point he’d been a young boy, flying with his brother and grandfather in a Cessna plane. “Coming down, seeing all the people, seeing our city, is just amazing,” Petry said.
Petry’s tandem parachute jump Monday morning with a Navy SEAL kicked off two days of accolades for the Santa Fe native, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011.
“It’s a great opportunity to represent the military and also to honor our veterans. To see all the support that the state has given us and our city, it’s truly humbling,” Petry said.
Petry parachuted into Magers Field at the Fort Marcy recreation complex a little after 8 a.m. in front of a couple of hundred people. Dana Bowman, a friend of Petry’s and retired member of the U.S. Army’s elite parachute team who lost both legs in a training accident, followed behind, dragging a huge American flag through the air.
The jumps were organized by Cowboy Up!, a program that provides horsemanship, wellness and other programs free to veterans and active service members who have suffered physical injuries or combat trauma.
Petry said he was proud to do the jump with friends. “There’s no better way to start the day than to see that American flag flying in the wind,” he proclaimed.
Petry had been up since 4:30 a.m. preparing for the jump, according to his father, Larry. “The little kid comes out of him … he’s ready to roll,” the elder Petry said.
Sgt. Petry, 33, served six tours of duty in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq. He received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for bravery in combat in Afghanistan.
Petry lost his right hand when he grabbed a live grenade and tried to throw it back at Taliban insurgents during a firefight in Afghanistan in May 2008.
He had already been shot through both legs and, after applying a tourniquet to his arm, he continued to give directions to other U.S. Army Rangers engaged in the battle.
His actions likely saved the lives of two other Rangers, according to battlefield reports.
After his skydiving entrance, an affable Petry spent nearly an hour at Fort Marcy shaking hands and posing for pictures.
Changing from his fatigues into a military dress uniform, Petry was then shuttled over to City Hall in a vintage fire engine for the unveiling of an 8-foot, 1,500-pound bronze statue crafted in his likeness by sculptor and Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. George Rivera.
Rivera, at the ceremony, said he tried to capture Petry’s service and sacrifice to the United States, as well as his humbleness. The statue shows Petry in a turquoise-colored dress uniform, smiling and extending his prosthetic hand.
The statue was paid for by Pojoaque Pueblo, which donated it to the Petry family. The Petrys then turned it over to the city of Santa Fe.
State and local luminaries at the unveiling included Gov. Susana Martinez, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, New Mexico Secretary of Veteran Affairs Timothy Hale and Santa Fe Mayor David Coss.
Martinez praised Petry as a hero with an incredible story.
“We are forever grateful to your sacrifice, your valor and your service to this great country,” she said.
Martinez added that the statue “will forever pay homage to Sgt. Petry’s actions.”
She and others, including Petry himself, made a point of extending their praise to all military veterans and active service members.
Jokes and tears
Petry, during a speech that swung from jokes to near tears, touched on his difficult early teen years. His experiences included one report card that was nearly all Fs and an eventual transformation – after a move to the now-closed St. Catherine’s Indian School – into an award-winning honors student.
Petry said he hopes his statue inspires people to be the best they can be every day.
Nearly 120 members of the Petry clan have gathered in Santa Fe this week to help honor the Medal of Honor recipient, according to Larry Petry. Some came from as far away as Germany.
Other attendees included fellow Medal of Honor recipient Army Major Bruce Crandall, who is a resident of Petry’s adopted home state of Washington, and friend of and mentor to the Santa Fean.
Crandall, who received his medal for service during the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, called the younger soldier “first-class.”
“I came (to Santa Fe) to back him up. To see these guys jumping after they’ve been through what they’ve been through, that makes you feel like a million bucks,” Crandall said at Fort Marcy.
“I love him. I want to adopt him, but he’s a little old for that. He’s an outstanding young man,” he added with a smile.
Petry will attend a ceremony at South Meadows Bridge in south Santa Fe today at 10:30 a.m. to name the bridge in his honor. He’s scheduled to head back to Washington state on Thursday.