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Originally published July 19, 2011 at 8:33 PM | Page modified July 20, 2011 at 8:39 AM

Medal recipient's prosthetic helps him return to unit

Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, who lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, has a state-of-the-art prosthetic hand that allows him to golf, help prepare dinner for his family and return to front-line duty in Afghanistan. Petry's hand is helping spotlight some of the remarkable advances in prosthetics for wounded soldiers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — The gold Medal of Honor drapes around Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry's neck, but it's his right hand — a remarkable silver prosthetic — that draws your eye.

The hand can grasp a cup or offer a firm handshake, such as the one extended last week to President Obama as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army Ranger became the second living soldier since the Vietnam War era to receive the nation's highest military honor.

All of these hand movements are directed by a network of sensors that pick up muscle contractions in Petry's arm.

When circumstances dictate, Petry can modify his prosthetic to improve on the hand. In the kitchen, he sometimes unscrews the hand and selects the appropriate knife to insert into the prosthetic, which he then uses to help prepare dinner for his wife and four children.

When out on the golf course, the 31-year-old Petry abandons the hand in favor of a small device formed from tube and pipe, which is attached to the prosthetic so that he can clasp his club.

"I'm not very good at it, but I have fun with it," Petry said Tuesday in a meeting with reporters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "It's so relaxing and calming to get away from everything. ... And I've met so many great people golfing."

Petry lost his hand on May 26, 2008, while grabbing a grenade that exploded as he tried to toss it away. For that action, credited with saving the lives of two other soldiers, he received the Medal of Honor in a July 12 White House ceremony.

When he was a young soldier, Petry looked upon the Medal of Honor as a coveted award. But when he was selected, it hit "like a ton of bricks" as he realized the whole world would now be looking at him.

The last week was a whirlwind of interviews and travels, which included a stop at the World Trade Center site, visits with New York City first responders and a front-row seat at a Mets-Phillies game, where he received a standing ovation as he waved his left hand.

But it is his prosthetic right hand that has drawn the most attention, spotlighting some of the advances in military medicine that are allowing more amputees to continue active-duty service.

"Before we get into the story of what happened that day in Afghanistan, may I just say that hand is super cool," said Jon Stewart, host of late-night television's "The Daily Show," as he began an interview with Petry that was broadcast Thursday.

Petry says his introduction to the advances in military prosthetics came during a stay at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, an Army facility that treats burn victims, amputees and others who lost use of limbs.

"I walked around that place in awe. A lot of guys who are service members with both legs missing above the thigh, and walking around with pants, and I couldn't tell the difference," Petry said. "I was fascinated. The technology for prosthetics ... has just blown me away. It is above and beyond what I expected."

He also has been humbled by the "bright attitudes and resiliency" of other soldiers with injuries far more grievous than his. In his current job at Madigan Army Medical Center, he assists wounded Special Forces personnel from all branches of service, and their families.

He counsels soldiers and also helps families arrange transportation, food and lodging.

But Petry, even after his injury, wanted to return to front-line duty. In February of this year, he returned to Afghanistan for his eighth tour of duty to a war zone.

"The past couple of years, seeing helicopters flying around Fort Lewis, and wanting to get back on them, and get back out there with the guys, it was just really great," he said.

"The hard part was on my wife (Ashley). We went back and forth about my last deployment. She said, 'Why would you want to go back there? You already are missing your arm. Why would you want to risk it again?' "

Petry told her that he doesn't risk any more than other service members who are in Afghanistan.

"She said, 'I know that is what is important with you. Go be with your Rangers. We'll say some prayers for you.' "

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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