Medal of Honor recipients visit Catholic schools

Staff Sgt. Leroy Petry and Sgt. Mike Rose speak at KCHS; parachute jump held at Sacred Heart 

By Dan McWilliams

Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were in Knoxville for a celebration Sept. 6-10, and two Catholic soldiers who earned the rare award stopped by Knoxville Catholic High School and Sacred Heart Cathedral School to interact with students.

KCHS senior Harrison Thompson asks a question of Medal of Honor recipients Leroy Petry and Mike Rose.

Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Leroy Petry and retired Army Sgt. Mike Rose spoke at a Medal of Honor assembly Sept. 7 at KCHS. Sgt. Petry arrived by helicopter at the high school’s football practice field along with Pete Hegseth of Fox News’ Fox & Friends morning news show, who was in town to record a segment for the show featuring KCHS students, Sgt. Petry, and Sgt. Rose.

Many Medal of Honor recipients took part in a memorial service at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Sept. 8. The morning also included a parachute jump and a howitzer salute.

Father Chris Michelson, chair of the KCHS Board of Trustees, led a prayer before the assembly.

“We give you thanks for giving us the opportunity each day to pray and to celebrate in true freedom, that freedom that is protected each day by the men and women of our Armed Forces,” he said. “We give you thanks for their diligence and for their willingness to serve.”

After the prayer, the KCHS band and combined chorus performed the National Anthem. The 5th Special Forces Honor Guard presented the colors.

School president Dickie Sompayrac began the assembly. “These men hold the highest and most prestigious military decorations and have distinguished themselves by their acts of valor,” he said. “Our students have been learning about the six values embodied in the Medal of Honor—courage, commitment, integrity, sacrifice, citizenship, and patriotism—through the Medal of Honor Character Development Program.”

Marc Anthony, a KCHS parent, of Knoxville radio station Star 102.1 FM moderated the assembly. He echoed Mr. Sompayrac’s words as he introduced Sgt. Petry and Sgt. Rose, who fielded questions from students.

Staff Sgt. Petry demonstrates the 360-degree rotation capability of his prosthetic hand for KCHS students as Sgt. Rose looks on.

“Let that sink in for a second: acts of valor,” Mr. Anthony said. “Valor that may have cost a body part. Valor that cost a lot of trauma. . . . This medal around their neck . . .  a president took time out of his day at a ceremony to put that medal around their necks. Only 3,500 of the millions who have served in the Armed Forces have ever had that medal put around their necks, and two of them are right there.”

Sgt. Petry, who also visited Knoxville in 2014 as part of a Medal of Honor ceremony, lost his right hand when he picked up a grenade while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. He demonstrated his prosthetic hand for the KCHS students, rotating it 360 degrees and taking it off his wrist.

“At a young age I realized there are a lot of things we take for granted in this country,” Sgt. Petry said. “We feel entitled simply because we were born here. Somebody sacrificed and was protecting us. Whether it was in war or peace, somebody was standing up to serve so I could enjoy everything when I was growing up. I said, ‘One day, I want to be that guy.’  . . . When I saw the difference I was making [in the Army], I continued to re-enlist.”

One student asked the best way to honor military members.

“Here’s my take on it. When I stand here, I’m looking at a future president, governor, senator, general, doctor, lawyer, carpenter, or whatever,” Sgt. Rose said. “To honor all of the people who have gone before you, those millions of us men and women who have lost their lives in defense of this country since April 1775—the best thing that you can do is get the best education that you can. . . .

“When you’re walking your dog and you find a McDonald’s cup or a piece of trash, pick it up and put it in a bag. If you have an 80-something or 90-something-year-old neighbor, on the way home from school, pick their newspaper up and bring it to their door or bring their mail. Check on them. Be a friend to that person who is seemingly, to you and to others, alone. When you see something that’s not right, somebody being bullied or a comment being made that is just not right, say something or do something about it, and I mean in a peaceful way. Because I can tell you this much: violence begets violence. Harshness and greed destroys the society that you live in. . . .

“Stand up and do something. Get involved. I don’t care if it’s the chess club or football, and take pride in your fellow students when they win a championship in chess or the football team wins a local championship. Walk by them in the hallway and say, ‘Good job.’ Just be a good, decent human being, and that’s how you honor all those people who have done what they have done so you can sit in these bleachers today in a Catholic school getting a good education.”

Members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of Knoxville and Winchester, Tenn., prepare to fire a howitzer salute during the Medal of Honor memorial service.

Both Medal of Honor recipients answered the next question: how does your family think of you being a hero?

“I tell my kids, ‘Dad’s not a hero. Dad’s retired from the military,’” said Sgt. Petry, a Catholic who graduated from a Catholic high school. “The heroes are the men and women who are still serving in the Armed Forces and first responders.”

Sgt. Rose followed.

“My children react to me the same way they did to me before the medal. They’re proud, but they don’t walk around saying that,” he said. “I do know that my children will come to me to ask me to go do something because I have the medal, to help some organization or something to that effect. They do take advantage that way, but other than that, it’s just you get up and you cut the grass and go about your business.”

Sgt. Rose also talked about his training when he was in the Special Forces and how actions in battle become second nature because of the training.

“When you’re in that situation, you’re not fighting for mom and apple pie and the flag, you’re fighting for the guy on your left and the guy on your right,” he said. “At that point in time, that’s all that counts. You get his back, and he has yours, and that’s how you do it. You’re committed to do it. It’s a commitment. You’ve raised your hand and you’re getting paid about $200 a month as a sergeant.”

Sgt. Petry answered a question about what he thought of the military before and after he enlisted.

“What did I get myself into?” he quipped, then added, “When I got out of the service, I still missed it. And I tried to stay heavily involved supporting our veterans and our military, and the more involved I stayed, it helps me miss it less.”

Sgt. Rose said he left the Army with a “master’s degree” in life.

“The Army provided me with an education; it provided me with three hots and a cot and a purpose,” he said.

Sgt. Petry gave advice for anyone interested in a career in the military.

“It’s an enjoyable career if you choose to make a career out of it. You’re still going to get so much out of it,” he said. “They talk about the transition being hard for folks coming out of the military. What makes it so difficult is, while you’re in the military, you’re surrounded by like-minded people who share your values, who know what teamwork is. When you get out in the civilian world, there are a lot of people who’ll throw you under the bus to get themselves ahead. They don’t share the same values. A lot of us looked around and said, ‘I miss being surrounded by good people all the time.’ That’s the hardest part. Whether you serve four years or 40 years, you’re going to get something out of it.”

Sgt. Petry recalled receiving the phone call from President Barack Obama informing him that he would receive the Medal of Honor. He received the vaunted medal on July 12, 2011, during a ceremony at the White House.

“When I got the phone call, I kind of knew it was coming. . . . He was telling me that he wanted to give me the Medal of Honor and invited me to D.C.,” he said. “I tried to see how long I could keep him on the phone. . . . Meeting him and the vice president and a lot of those officials up there in D.C. was an honor. To meet any president is an honor, and I’ve met a number of them. When you meet them, you realize they’re just like you and I. They grew up, they studied, they did what they needed to do to get where they wanted to be.”

After the assembly, Mr. Sompayrac credited a KCHS parent for the occasion.

“Joe Thompson, who is in charge of the Medal of Honor Foundation here in Knoxville, his kids go to school here, and I think that played a large role in us getting them here. It was a great honor for us and something that our kids will never forget,” he said.

Pete Hegseth (blue shirt) of Fox & Friends poses with Sgt. Rose, Staff Sgt. Petry, and KCHS students after recording a segment for his series.

Mr. Hegseth, an Army National Guard veteran, then recorded his Fox & Friends segment in the KCHS library. The video may be viewed here.

“What we hope to do by recording this for Fox & Friends is showcase the Character Development Program, showcase the Medal of Honor Society, showcase the amazing stories that these men have and the way it can help shape and change lives of young people in this country,” he said. “I know you [students] do Medal of Honor Mondays in your AP Government courses. We just want to showcase this to the rest of the country—no pressure, there’s only about 2 million people watching.”

After the recording, Sgt. Rose spoke of his Medal of Honor. He stressed that the honorees are not “winners” but “recipients.” He received his medal on Oct. 23, 2017, from President Donald Trump.

“They like the word ‘recipient.’ The Army does not like the word ‘winner,’ because military awards and decorations are not won—they are awarded for service and combat,” he said.

Earning the medal is like “a two-edged sword,” he said. “In one way, there’s a lot of attributes and benefits and a lot of fun things that you get to get involved in, but the other thing is there’s a big demand on your time.”

On Sept. 8, Sacred Heart sixth-grader Owen McNally looked forward to the parachute jump and seeing the Medal of Honor recipients.

“I think it’s really cool to be doing this for our school and for the veterans who served here in the United States. I’m really excited to see them,” he said. “I think it’s going to be really cool to see people jumping out of a helicopter. . . . I think it’s a really great thing that these people did.”

Julia Zabek looks at a Medal of Honor in the KCHS library before a taping of a Fox & Friends segment began.

Eleven members of the Army Golden Knights parachuted out of an aircraft 5,000 feet in the air, with smoke grenades helping pinpoint their location. Students yelled “jump” and cheered as each jumper approached and landed on the athletics field just outside of Sacred Heart Cathedral School.

The first jumper was Army Staff Sgt. Griffin Mueller. He said the jump was his 821st.

“Jumping for kids is probably the best experience because of the energy that they have, and they’re so excited to be out here to see us perform. It really means something to a lot of the guys on the team,” he said.

Recognizing Medal of Honor winners was important, too, Sgt. Mueller said.

“It means a lot because those are the men and women who came before us that did incredibly valorous things under the most tremendous of conditions. It means a lot just to give back to those guys because they gave all, and some gave more than that,” he said.

The Sept. 8 private memorial service at the cathedral honored deceased Medal of Honor recipients Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro, Army Sgt. First Class Alwyn C. Cashe, Army Sgt. First Class Christopher A. Celiz, Specialist Fourth Class Charles C. Hagemeister, U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Duane E. Dewey, Army Sgt. Gary B. Beikirch, Specialist Fourth Class Kenneth Stumpf, Gunnery Sgt. John L. Canley, USMC Cpl. Hershel W. Williams, and USMC Private First Class Robert E. Simanek.

Medal of Honor recipients also took part in a Patriot Award Gala on Sept. 10 at the Knoxville Convention Center. Actor Gary Sinise served as master of ceremonies at the gala, which was attended by Bishop Richard F. Stika.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society awarded former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley the Patriot Award at the event. “Top Gun: Maverick” actor Glen Powell received the Bob Hope Award for entertainment, NBC News correspondent Courtney Kube received the John R. “Tex” McCrary Award for excellence in journalism, and Dr. Timothy Miller of Operation Mend received the Distinguished Citizen Award.

For more information on the Knoxville events, visit www.mohknoxville2022.org.

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