By Dan McWilliams
Students from Catholic elementary schools and Knoxville Catholic High School heard stories of courage, honor, and sacrifice as Medal of Honor recipients, in town for a national convention, spent time with them Sept. 12.
All of the speakers arrived by helicopter, including retired Army Staff Sgt. Leroy A. Petry and Army Specialist Ty M. Carter, who were greeted at Sacred Heart Cathedral School by Bishop Richard F. Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and Sacred Heart rector Father David Boettner after they landed on the school grounds.
Sacred Heart principal Sarah Trent was scheduled to make a parachute jump at the event, but the weather did not cooperate.
Sgt. Petry and Specialist Carter appeared on stage at Sacred Heart, where they fielded questions from WBIR-TV’s John Becker and students. The two Medal of Honor recipients entered the gym through a double line of students that included Boy and Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownies, and American Heritage Girls in their uniforms. A military band and a full house of students from SHCS, St. Joseph, St. John Neumann, and St. Mary in Oak Ridge greeted them. Bishop Stika led an opening prayer and later presented gifts to the two honorees.
Sgt. Petry lost his right hand when he picked up a grenade that detonated while serving as a Ranger in Afghanistan. He demonstrated his robotic artificial hand for the students, turning it 360 degrees to oohs and aahs from the gathering.
Specialist Carter said during the assembly, when asked by Mr. Becker how faith figured into his service, that “you find part of a religious experience when the bullets are flying and the bombs are going off.”
“The faith I actually experienced while I was in severe combat was not of the religious type at all,” he said. “The trust with your fellow soldiers: while I had my rifle pointing one direction firing, I didn’t have to worry about my back. I didn’t worry about what’s behind me because I know that my fellow servicemen would commit their entire existence to protect my back as I’m protecting their back, so the faith actually came from the trust and love and camaraderie of my fellow servicemen.”
Sgt. Petry is a Catholic who went to St. Catherine Catholic School in his native Santa Fe, N.M.
“Unfortunately we were the last graduating class,” he said. “The school closed down after we graduated.”
His faith played a role in his service in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Well, I always felt there were prayers always out there for me and so many that kept me alive,” he said, “and I knew, I prayed, that I’d always do my best to do all I could for my guys and complete the mission and get home to my family.”
When he speaks to students, Sgt. Petry said he hopes the message he gets across is for the young people “to just do all that they can do to be contributors to our society. The greatest feeling that a parent can have is for their child to be a contributor to our society and not a drain on it.”
He told the Sacred Heart students that they can be a hero without picking up a grenade “or without any accolades or anything,” including by such a simple act as picking up trash they see on the ground.
After their talk, Sgt. Petry and Specialist Carter toured the cathedral school and spoke to students.
Sgt. Petry addressed students in the Sacred Heart Cathedral School library, where he took a variety of questions. Those included: “what advice do you have on being a model citizen,” “what gave you the courage to save someone’s life,” “what was hardest about leaving home and going overseas,” “was it a conscious decision to pick up the grenade” (he answered yes), and “were you brave and courageous as a kid?”
Sgt. Petry’s heroics came under enemy fire that wounded him in both legs before the grenade attack that cost him his hand. The incident occurred May 26, 2008, in Paktya Province, Afghanistan. He received his Medal of Honor on July 12, 2011.
Specialist Carter and his comrades awakened to an attack by some 300 enemy fighters on Oct. 3, 2009, in Outpost Keating, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Specialist Carter, as part of a number of heroic actions, ran twice through a 100-meter gauntlet of enemy fire. He also ran through a hail of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire to rescue a critically wounded comrade. He received his Medal of Honor on Aug. 26, 2013.
Sgt. Petry was 28 and Specialist Carter was 29 when they committed the acts that earned them the Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor recipients Walter Joseph Marm Jr. and Thomas G. Kelley were the guests of honor Sept. 12 at Knoxville Catholic High School, where students turned out en masse to greet the decorated veterans as they arrived by Black Hawk helicopter.
Following a brief reception, Col. Marm and Capt. Kelley, who both served in Vietnam and retired after 30-year military careers, then spoke to the student body during an all-school assembly before they visited classrooms.
During the assembly, the men offered words of wisdom as they described the events that led to their Medals of Honor and were asked questions by students.
Capt. Kelley voiced his excitement to be at KCHS and urged the students to develop and use moral courage in their daily lives. He compared that to having courage on the battlefield in the face of enemy assault.
“You face (obstacles) every day. … You have to be a good Christian in knowing what to do,” he said. “As they say in Boston, it is wicked awesome to be here, to be at a school like this.”
Col. Marm shared in Capt. Kelley’s awe of the KCHS response to their visit.
“It’s an awesome experience to be here in front of a wonderful student body like this,” Col. Marm said.
He told the students that one day the country will be in their hands and to use their faith in serving their country, in whatever path they choose.
“God has a plan for you. God is not going to put more in your backpack than you can stand,” Col. Marm said.
Capt. Kelley told the students he joined the Navy in 1960 during peacetime but was deployed to Vietnam during the decade. He received the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1970, for heroism during a river battle on June 15, 1969, in which he led other sailors in defending a disabled armored troop carrier under assault. He was seriously injured by shrapnel and lost an eye as he fought to save the lives of fellow sailors.
When asked how their faith influenced their lives during military service, Col. Marm said faith was very important. Like Capt. Kelley, Col. Marm is Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up in Pittsburgh. Capt. Kelley is a lifelong Catholic from Boston.
“There’s a saying that there are no atheists in fox holes and I believe that,” Col. Marm said, recalling how he was told as a young enlisted soldier that if he prayed daily he wouldn’t be killed in action. He said he carried a holy card with him in Vietnam.
Col. Marm was shot in the jaw on Nov. 14, 1965, as he single-handedly attacked an enemy position and attracted enemy fire to draw fire away from trapped soldiers during the battle of Ia Drang Valley. He received his Medal of Honor on Dec. 19, 1966.
Capt. Kelley was 29 years old when he was injured and Col. Marm was 23.
Col. Marm said he was among 150 Army soldiers that went into battle at Ia Drang; 79 were killed in action and 121 were wounded.
The battle inspired the book We Were Soldiers Once … and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and then the film We Were Soldiers that starred actor Mel Gibson as Lt. Gen. Moore.
Col. Marm said he was one of the soldiers under Lt. Gen. Moore’s command. During his visit to KCHS, Col. Marm was greeted by a Knoxvillian who served with the colonel at Ia Drang Valley. Col. Marm said the fellow veteran probably saved his life.
Bill Brewer contributed to this report.