Since 1861, almost 3,400 men and one woman have received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions on the battlefield. This is the story of one of those recipients, Sal Giunta of Hiawatha, Iowa.
On October 25, 2007 Specialist, now Staff Sergeant, Sal Giunta was on patrol with men from the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. They were among three platoons of men that left before day break to march up the valley in the Kunar Province which is on the border with Pakistan.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: "The day was like any other, I guess, October day in Afghanistan. It starts off cold, cool in the morning and then the day heated up. It's hot in the sun. We weren't standing. The walk out there took us maybe an hour and a half or 2 hours because it was still dark and the climb was a pretty steep climb."
In his second deployment to Afghanistan, Giunta was the leader of a four-man rifle team. The men in Giunta's platoon were tasked with watching over another group from the 173rd that would setup a short distance down the mountainside.
Though ready for action, the men spent an uneventful day waiting and watching. For the men in Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, this day would end in a way no one expected.
As the sun went down, the men of Battle Company packed up their equipment and began to move down the trail toward home. A full moon was coming up in the night sky.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: Simple hand and arm signals, simple, you know, wrap it up, we're going, heading back, it's gonna be good. At that point, it's still too early to think about cold water. It's just finish and go back to where we started from this morning. Once we get in, then we start thinkin' about what makes us happy."
They walked only a short distance when the two squads Giunta was with were ambushed by Taliban fighters. The gun fire was intense. The insurgents used rocket propelled grenades on the trapped soldiers. Tracer rounds, normally indicating the path of every 3rd or 4th bullet, appeared as an impenetrable wall of red.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: I was in a good position. I had a good position for myself. Drop down, return fire. Saw kind of the bigger picture of what was happening, because in this way it's all in front of us as opposed to the rounds were coming left to right, and now we're seeing flashes. We're actually -- it's all clicking on how close this is and about how many people we're up against."
Training took over. Private Kaleb Casey and Private Garrett Clary, two of the soldiers with Giunta, began firing back. Staff Sergeant Erick Gallardo, the squad leader was seeing to the rest of the men in the two rifle teams.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: "There's no thinking about tomorrow. There's no thinking about the next minute. Your body's reacting, signals are being used, shooting's happening. It's all trained. It's all reaction."
Giunta was hit in the front plate of his armored vest but was unhurt. Then he saw Staff Sgt. Gallardo coming down the trail. Gallardo was hit in the helmet by small arms fire. Giunta ran out from behind what little cover he had to help the fallen soldier.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: "This is all fast. It's all still happening. Then jump up to help him up. I didn't think he was gonna get up. I was just gonna grab him and pull him back. That's my next move."
The soldiers gathered up what ammunition and hand grenades they had and decided to make a move to their buddies who were cut-off farther down the trail. The small group threw their grenades in three volleys moving toward the enemy gun fire.
After moving to their last position, the soldiers came upon Specialist Franklin Eckrode who had been wounded. Despite all the action around him, Giunta realized he was not under fire. The young Specialist prepared to run to the place where he thought Sgt Josh Brennan, leader of the other rifle team, would be fighting the enemy. Brennan and Giunta were more than just two soldiers -- they were friends.
When he arrived at where Brennan should have been he noticed two men dragging a third man away. It was then he realized the two men were enemy fighters and the third man being dragged away was Sgt. Brennan.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: " And as I'm running, I noticed, you know, they're not friendlies, and that's not an Afghani that they're carrying. So I just run and shoot, shoot and run. They weren't ready for that. They both had their guns slung on their backs. They had a guy in their arms. So I just ran up on 'em, just shootin'. Shoot to kill. That's what time it is. Time to get rid of them."
After the Taliban retreated, Giunta saw to the seriously injured Brennan, who had suffered multiple shrapnel and bullet wounds. Giunta called for a medic and Sergeant Gallardo. Little did he know, the team's medic, Specialist Hugo Mendoza had already been killed.
Giunta kept Brennan occupied with small-talk while waiting for another medic to arrive.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: "Just kind of brought up, you know, Wisconsin, going home. Trying to laugh about how he knows he's gonna go home, he's gonna be drunk in a week. And he's still talking like, "Oh, man, you're gonna go home, you're gonna go to Wisconsin." He's like, "yeah." He's not talking a lot. It's a forced talk but he's still responding, he's still squeezing my hand, and he's still with it.
I want to say the whole time leading up to that was less than, you know, maybe 15 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, maybe 100 lifetimes. I don't know. You know, it's all -- my time frame, my idea of time during the time during that process is all out of whack. I don't know how long."
Brennan was air lifted for treatment but died from his wounds some time later.
Back in Iowa, his parents, Steve and Rosemary Giunta, were unaware of what had happened. Sal made several phone calls home before he was able to tell the whole story.
Rose Giunta, Hiawatha, Iowa: "He called the house, and it wasn't to tell us what went on. It was just to get some relief from all the stuff that was happening right there. And when he called, I could tell. His voice was different. He shouldn't have been calling me at that time, from what I could tell, because days previous their group had gotten a break.
Steve Giunta, Hiawatha, Iowa: "Rose just finally said, 'You know, you need to tell me what happened. My mind is just going in so many different directions. You need to set it straight.' And that's when he replied, 'I'm gonna tell you, and I'm only gonna tell you one time. and I don't want you to ask any questions.' You know, we did everything we could to not gasp, not go, 'What were you thinking? Why did you do that?" We just listened. When it was done, we just told him that we loved him. We told him that we were--you know, thank god that he was safe. we prayed for the people that he has lost in his life, because -- you know, at that time we were just dealing with that deep emotion of how blessed we felt, but how utterly sad we felt that not everybody had their whole family together any longer..' “
For his actions under fire, Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta will be awarded the military's highest award, the Medal of Honor.
Giunta is humble about the honor that is being bestowed upon him.
Staff Sgt Sal Giunta, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: "Why do they want to give this to me? Because I've got two good buddies that I lost that night. I don't deserve it. Don't give me the highest medal. I don't need a medal. I didn't do anything for a medal. I didn't do anything in particular for Brennan. I did what I was supposed to do. If I didn't do what I was supposed to do, it would be hard for me to call myself a professional. It would be hard for me to accept the paycheck that I'm gonna get."
On Tuesday, November 16, 2010 President Barack Obama presented Giunta with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House. Staff Sergeant Giunta is the first living recipient of the nation's highest award for bravery under fire since the Vietnam War.
President Barack Obama: "It is my privilege to present our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to a soldier as humble as he is heroic: Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta. Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say I really like this guy."
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Post Date: November 10, 2010