What Sgt. Petry can teach Minnesota’s kids

Sgt. Leroy Petry shows his ‘robotic hand’ to a group of Minnesota teachers who are developing a citizenship curriculum based on the values enshrined in the Medal of Honor, which Sgt. Petry received in 2011. Photo: Bob Collins/MPR News

In the relatively short time I had to spend with Sgt. Leroy Petry on Monday, he didn’t try to recruit me into the military, he didn’t glorify war, and he didn’t tell me what politician I should vote for to be considered properly “patriotic.”

That might allay the fears of three members of the Minnesota House of Representatives who voted against a bill in the last session to allow schools to voluntarily adopt a curriculum that Petry is in town to help develop: a character development program inspired by recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Petry received his in 2011, three years after he lunged after and tossed a grenade that had been thrown at his unit during an assault on an insurgent compound in Afghanistan during one of his six tours of duty there. It blew his hand off.

On Monday in Minneapolis, Petry helped teachers from school districts in Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Waconia and Monticello work on the curriculum “to build character and promote responsible citizenship.”

How do you teach patriotism when so many people have different definitions of what it means and political parties consistently try to convey that they’ve got the market cornered on it?

“It is a tough one,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to serve in the military or police force or any of those things. It does take pride in where you live and your way of life. I think everyone in America should be a patriot. On the news sometimes you see people crowded in overloaded boats, swimming across rivers, crowding into airplanes to get here. You never see them going the other way.”

“If you love living in America, what do you do to support it? That’s patriotism.”

For the record, Sgt. Petry is no fan of the presidential campaign. “We teach our kids, ‘don’t bully,’ but this whole election process from the beginning has been candidates bullying each other back and forth. How is that setting a good example?”

He’s all for making America great, but he thinks it starts in communities where people live, not in the Oval Office. “It’s people taking leadership in those communities and doing the right thing for one another. That’s where America is going to be great again. I still think it’s great, but I think it can be better.”

“When he gave me the medal, the president said ‘our heroes are all around us,’ and what he meant was you don’t have to wear a uniform to be a hero. It can involve something as simple as just listening to people’s problems.”

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Most of the teachers he spoke with today are teachers in public schools, an arena where Petry did not excel. He acknowledges hanging out with the wrong crowd in his New Mexico hometown until he intercepted his report card in the mail, hoping to change the grades before his parents saw them.

“I start scanning down the paper. I see F, F, F, F, F, D, F. The ‘D’ I think was in bakery. I got disgusted with myself because I always wanted to go in the military and if I hand this paper to someone, they’re not going to know who Leroy is, that I’m an OK guy to hang with and joke around with and playing sports. They’re going to look at the name at the top and the grades associated with it and think, ‘why should I give this guy two minutes of my time; he’s not making an effort in school?'”

His dad put him in a parochial school, where he made the honor roll by senior year.

“Is whatever caused you to pull yourself up something you learned or is it genetic?” I asked.

“I think it was a lot of values,” he replied. “I saw how hard my parents were working to provide us with the best they could. A lot of these things were always rolling around in my head; I want to do better. I want to be able to do more for others. That’s the way I was raised. My mom was always helping homeless people and there’s good values in it.”

“We all have stories as service members but as veterans we try to go out in our communities and make our communities a better place. Who doesn’t want their backyard to be a safer, better place to live.”