It was early when Army Sgt. Antonio De Petris made his way into his mom’s kitchen in East Hampton for an interview Monday, and he looked tired after a weekend of activities for Veterans Day.
Home from a recent one-year deployment in Afghanistan — his first was in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009 — the 24-year-old East Hampton native has been catching up on much-needed sleep.
Sergeant De Petris, part of the elite infantry unit — Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment — was in the Logar Province in southeastern Afghanistan along with 20,000 soldiers in his brigade. Now, he is stateside until his unit is required elsewhere.
The seargent, who has been commended four times for his leadership under enemy fire and dexterity in combat situations, has a polite determination, a straightforward demeanor, and a steely calm that is slightly unnerving. If you were headed to battle, this is the man you would want in charge.
Recruited by West Point to play lacrosse, Sergeant De Petris declined the opportunity due to the military requirement. “I asked the obligation, and they said five years in the military,” he said. “I wouldn’t have fit in there.” Instead, he attended a year of college before deciding to join the Army along with his younger brother, Spc. William De Petris III. They enlisted on the same day.
After a 12-month deployment to Iraq, his brother is now in college and hopes hat when he returns to active duty, it will be as an officer.
In Logar Province, Sergeant De Petris helped disrupt enemy forces by restricting freedom of movement, stopping propaganda, and persuading civilians not to side with the Taliban. “My job is to enforce rules and regulations, and train soldiers. There is a regulation for everything in the military. When I’m deployed, it’s more keeping people alive,” he said. He was a team leader, with three soldiers under him.
“They strip you down, and teach you rules and regulations,” his mother, Carolann De Petris, said. “But he hasn’t changed. He’s allowed to be himself.”
“I think we set a record for the four months in finding improvised explosive devices, I.E.D.s. We found over 60 in the Tangi Valley. Four in the bad way, we lost six people,” he said.
“It’s the worst place in Afghanistan,” Ms. De Petris interjected, but her son stopped her. “It wasn’t that bad though,” he said. “I don’t know why they think it’s that bad.”
However modest he may be, Sergeant De Petris does admit some difficulties with the job. “We’re trained in land navigation here in the woods. Over there it’s mountains and valleys. There’s a lot that comes into play,” he said.
While hiking on difficult terrain with maps where “nothing is in order the way it’s supposed to be,” soldiers wear a vest that weighs 30 pounds, and carry a backpack with extra equipment in it, Sergeant De Petris said. “All of this amounts to close to 150 pounds of stuff, where we’re making two to three-mile movements at a time, walking through the mountains,” he said.
In Iraq, his language skills served him better — he speaks Arabic — but in Afghanistan “there are seven different dialects. Interpreters in Iraq are amazing, not in Afghanistan. Not impressive, since we’ve been there for over 10 years.”
But advanced technology, a given in the military, helps foster missions that stem from actual intelligence. “Low-level helicopters pick up voices, and we have a list of cellphones with bad guys’ voices. We set a mission up where we hear their voices, and raid the houses when they’re out. For high-value targets, we try to find the guys themselves,” he explained. “Part of a day’s work involves looking for caches, stock-piled weapons, and I.E.D. materials.”
Two days before leaving Logar Province, the battalion went on a raid “down this mountain through a valley to a village where no one had been in four years. We left at 10 the night before, and wanted to start the raid at 5 a.m. just as the sun came up.” Their job was to search the entire village and cordon it off.
The real motivation behind these raids “is to restrict the mobility of the Taliban. They’re very patient and organized. And good at what they do.”
In that raid, his battalion discovered rockets, I.E.D. materials, and a couple of AK-47s, he said, and he found paperwork, propaganda materials, and a man who ran away from them.
Soldiers are also searching on raids for vehicles and suspects on a special list. “We have pictures of people we’re looking for. We have a hidden system, and a camera takes a fingerprint scan. We’ve found a lot of people just random checking,” he said.
There are more humanitarian aspects of the job, too, like bridge building and visiting schools.
Sergeant De Petris’s bravery on the field has earned him a number of accolades. A two-star general gave him a coin as a token of his outstanding performance during a firefight. “Actually, it was for getting in an argument with a lieutenant,” he joked. “We were behind a building, and I had 30 guys getting shot at. I had a rocket on my back, and I wanted the lieutenant to put me on the roof, and the guy wouldn’t. I flipped out. My commander heard about it, and gave me a coin,” he said.
During his combat experience, Sergeant De Petris said he has never lost any of his men, but “in Afghanistan I lost four friends in the first six months. All together, I’ve lost 15 people I’ve known of.”
When he was a specialist with the battalion, Sergeant De Petris was given the Army Commendation Medal for maneuvering a squad under direct fire to help another squad that could not move and had been cut off from the platoon. His efforts enabled the squad to reach safety.
This year, on Sept. 10, his combat post was attacked by a car bomb, the second time in four months that a car bomb had exploded in the vicinity. “An 18-wheeler filled with wood and explosives got in. Everyone got injured. We were in buildings and they collapsed on top of us,” he said. Dressed in shorts and flip-flops, Sergeant De Petris ran outside to the site of the blast. “I yelled at my men to get their weapons and get outside. I ran out, and I was the first one there, along with two other men. We were waiting for people to come to secure the hole.” Sergeant De Petris engaged in a firefight with the Taliban for 10 minutes before assessing who had been hurt. The welfare of the soldiers is always secondary to eliminating the threat, he said.
There were over 110 injuries and 3 casualties including 2 Afghan security people and a 2-year-old Afghan girl. “They took away 50 percent of our strength, 90 percent were medevacked. My girlfriend, Haley Jones, a mechanic, had a collapsed lung,” he said. After he helped secure the hole, Sergeant De Petris helped restore the communications unit and initiated a makeshift triage area with another soldier.
He got shrapnel in his left leg and sustained a traumatic brain injury, something he said happens to everyone who has been through an explosive blast.
“More than $2 billion of stuff was damaged. We had a balloon as big as a house with cameras in it that was destroyed. They took away everything we had: Internet, TV, laptops,” he said.
For his actions during the attack, Sergeant De Petris was nominated for a Purple Heart. In Iraq, he was awarded a Purple Heart but turned it down. He had broken a finger while chasing down a man who took refuge in a house and didn’t think his injury was worthy of the honor.
“My platoon leader told me, don’t turn down an award again,” he said. This time around, “I had to get blown up by a car,” he joked. “I just cut my hand and I could have had one.”
“Next time I deploy, I hope it’s Special Operations. If I don’t make it the first time, I’m going to go back until I get selected,” he said.
“We call him Superman,” his mother said. “He does his job and doesn’t think twice about the heroism.”