Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for valor in combat, by President Barack Obama at the White House on November 16, 2010. The 25-year-old paratrooper received the medal for actions "at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" on the night of October 25, 2007, at age 22, while on patrol in the remote Korengal Valley of northeast Afghanistan.
Near the Pakistan border, the Korengal Valley is a smuggling route for weapons and insurgents, and one of the most dangerous areas of the country. Dubbed the 'Valley of Death,' the 10-mile-long valley has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war and been home to dozens of American casualties.
In his remarks before fastening the medal's ribbon around SSG Giunta's neck, President Obama called Giunta "as humble as he is heroic." All surviving members of Giunta's squad attended the White House ceremony, as well as the parents of the two members who died that night.
Also in the audience, along with Giunta's wife and parents, were a number of previous Medal of Honor recipients.
Salvatore Giunta is seen by many as a hero, but with a humility that seems to be a common trait of those who wear the Medal of Honor, Giunta says he's no hero, he was just doing his job, and what any other soldier would have done. He's been very uncomfortable with all the attention, but says he understands that if his destiny is to be that of a role model, someone for others to look up to, he'll play that role "to the best of my ability."
On that fateful night, in what is known as an "L-shaped ambush," Taliban fighters were firing from the front and side of the patrol, from as close as 20 feet. When the attack began, the lead man, SGT Josh Brennan, was hit as many as eight times, and instantly went down. Then-SPC Giunta was hit twice, but saved by his body armor and the gear he carried. He ran ahead, through "withering enemy fire," to check on Brennan, but when he reached the spot where the thought his friend should be, he saw two Taliban fighters dragging Brennan away. Giunta opened fire, killing one of the insurgents and wounding the other. The wounded man dropped Brennan and ran.
Giunta immediately dragged Brennan to a position with some cover, and began administering first aid, while calling for medevac. Though seriously injured, Brennan was still alive when airlifted out by the helicopter. SPC Hugo Mendoza, the medic, was dead before he left the scene, having bled out from his femoral artery due to gunshot wounds to his leg while helping another soldier.
Most of the men, including Giunta, did not know Mendoza had died, and they did not learn until after a two-and-half hour hike back to their base after the firefight, that SGT Brennan died in surgery at a nearby base.
SSG Salvatore Giunta is the eighth man to be awarded the Medal of Honor for combat action in either Afghanistan or Iraq, but the first man alive to receive the award in person. In contrast to the previous Medal of Honor ceremonies, where the President presented the posthumous award to the somber parents of a fallen hero, Obama called this a "joyous occasion."
Giunta commented that it is a bittersweet moment, because it reminds him of the friends he lost that night.
"This is an incredible time, but it’s also kind of a bittersweet time. Because of this day, I lost two dear friends of mine," he said. "I would give this back in a second to have those friends here with me now.
"There are so many others that are the unsung heroes of this war who will never come back to a handshake, or a hug from their families. We have to take the time to remember them."
He said the Medal also gives him a chance to tell their story, to make sure they are not forgotten.
"They were better Soldiers than me," Giunta said with a catch in his voice. "That's part of what gets me so much. I was with Brennan for the deployment before and he's always been a better Soldier than me. He was Alpha Team leader. I was Bravo Team leader. There's a reason for that. Spc. Mendoza was a combat medic. He did everything we did, plus when we came back dehydrated, 'Oh I'm this, oh I'm that, I have this blister Doc,' he would fix it. He went above and beyond every single day."
Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in the War on Terror, is, as the President said, "as humble as he is heroic."
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