Three years ago and 7,000 miles away, on a cold, rocky mountainside in Afghanistan, Sal Giunta fought inside a hailstorm of bullets to save his buddies. Today, a nation that can scarcely imagine the circumstances of his heroism, or share the motivation for it, awards him its highest military tribute, the Medal of Honor.
At the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will award Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta the distinctive gold star with a neckband of blue with a field of white stars, for "great personal bravery'' in combat. Giunta's wife, Jennifer, and his parents, Steven and Rosemary Giunta, will be present at the ceremony.
Giunta, 25, joined the Army seven years ago on an impulse. He was working nights at a Subway in Hiawatha, Iowa, and heard a recruiting jingle promising a free T-shirt. In a flash he'd gone through basic and advanced infantry training and was sent to Battle Company, 503rd
Infantry Regiment, 173rd
Airborne Brigade, and on to two combat tours in Afghanistan totaling 27 months. Four of his buddies were killed early in his first deployment, blown up by an IED, a roadside bomb. On his second deployment, Battle Co. was sent into the Korengal Valley
, a small (six miles long and a mile wide) but deadly strip of steep, mountainous terrain where American troops were regularly chewed up by Taliban insurgents.
As Giunta and his buddies struggled through the daily firefights and attacks in the Korengal, his four-year Army hitch was completed. But the Army, using a process known as "stop-loss,''
prevented him from going home until Battle Co.'s 12-month tour was completed.
On Oct. 25, 2007, two platoons of Battle Co., walking patrol at about 8,000 feet high in the Korengal
, were suddenly trapped in an L-shaped ambush, a classic enemy maneuver that brought them under fire from two sides. A firefight exploded. "Tracers, bullets, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], snaps, pops, cracks, explosions, wings, zings, dings . . . '' is how Giunta recalled it in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes
Sgt. Giunta and his men could see the muzzle flashes in the dusk, bearded men firing at them from within the distance you could throw a baseball, he said. Soldiers dropped, wounded. Giunta took a round to his chest -- the bullets stopped by the ceramic plate in his body armor. Through the smoke and flash-bang of detonating grenades, Giunta suddenly spotted his good buddy, Sgt. Joshua Brennan
, badly wounded and being carried away by two Taliban, dragging Brennan by his hands and feet. Brennan was a tough soldier. The son of two military police, he'd been wounded once before in Afghanistan, and had won the Bronze Star for bravery in combat. But now he needed help badly.
Without thinking, Giunta charged head-on into the Taliban guns, shooting and throwing grenades. One of his soldiers was shot four times, but grabbed Giunta from the ground. "They have him!'' he cried, meaning Brennan. Sprinting, Giunta shot one of the two Talibs carrying Brennan, and the other, who may have been mortally wounded, staggered off. When Giunta got to Brennan, he was conscious, badly wounded in the lower jaw.
Brennan was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he was aware that he'd been rescued from the Taliban. "He knew we were there,'' Giunta told "60 Minutes." They carried Brennan to safety and he was lifted up and away by a medevac chopper. The ambush-firefight had lasted three minutes. Later that night, Joshua Brennan died in surgery; he was 22 years old.
Less than 36 months later, in the spring of 2010, American commanders ordered the last U.S. troops out of the Korengal Valley
, declaring it not worth the cost to keep.
Giunta will be the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. He joins 86 other living veterans who have been so honored. Within the very small community of Americans who have served in combat, they are an even smaller, elite brotherhood. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking recently
to students at Duke University, referred to those who have served in wartime "a tiny sliver of America [that] has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances.
"No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country's citizens in uniform full time,'' Gates said: roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members serve in uniform, out of a country of more than 300 million -- less than 1 percent.
Obama himself called Giunta in September to tell him that he'd been selected for the Medal of Honor. But the staff sergeant seems reluctant to bask in the attention. Asked how he felt about being an American hero, he told "60 Minutes:" "I'm not at peace with that at all . . . people wanting to shake my hand . . . hurts me. To be with so many people doing so much stuff [in Afghanistan] and then to be singled out and put forward . . .''
He shook his head. "Everyone did something . . . I'm average, I'm mediocre. This was only one moment. I don't think I did anything anybody else wouldn't have done. I was in a position to do it, it needed to be done, so that's what I did.''