On Tuesday, November 16, 2010 President Barack Obama presented Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta with the nation’s top military award, the Medal of Honor, for his intrepid actions in the Afghanistan conflict. Giunta is the first living serviceman to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
With the humility befitting a soldier, Giunta’s words of acceptance were understandably bittersweet; the fighting that night in October 2007 was indescribably violent and one of the soldiers he dragged from gunfire later died from the injuries he sustained in battle.
“I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now,” he said as the rain fell solemnly on the White House Lawn.
President Obama praised both Giunta’s service and character, saying during the ceremony, “I’m going to go off script here and just say, ‘I really like this guy, a soldier as humble as he is heroic.’ When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about, and it just makes you proud.”
He then recounted to an inspired audience how Giunta “charged headlong into a wall of bullets” first pulling a soldier who had been struck in the helmet back to safety, then sprinting ahead to find two Taliban fighters taking the stricken Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan away.
“Sal never broke stride,” Obama said. “He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off.”
The moment was surely as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience and beyond imagination to most.
Walking single file along a steep mountain pass in the Korengal Valley — a well-known corridor for Taliban traveling back and forth from Pakistan to Afghanistan and one of the most untamed regions in Afghanistan — Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was bushwhacked in the darkness. With two men hit off the ambush, Giunta, a rifle team leader, stepped into the line of fire, impeding the enemy attack and rescuing one of his fallen serviceman.
Regrouping, Giunta hurled grenades then, weaving through gunfire, overcame the insurgents who were carrying off a mortally wounded Sgt. Brennan. After taking aim he killed one and wounded the other.
Giunta continued as bullets rained down on him and his brother in arms and he dragged Brennan by his armor vest to cover. With the platoon medic killed in action and under unthinkable duress, he worked assiduously to stop Sgt. Brennen from bleeding to death. He saw him through until the wounded Americans were eventually evacuated from the ridge.
In the attack Brennan and medic Hugo V. Mendoza died and five other platoon members were wounded. Giunta was hit twice; one which struck his body armor and another that destroyed his weapon. Every member of the platoon took either bullets or shrapnel to their person or gear.
Because standards for achieving the nation’s highest military honor are so high, most recipients in recent years are only honored posthumously. There have been seven previous recipients of the Medal of Honor for service in either the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Giunta makes number eight.