Three years ago and half a world away, on a cold, treacherous mountainside in Afghanistan, a young man, wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army, challenged a hailstorm of bullets in order to save his fellow soldiers. On November 16, President Obama, during a ceremony at the White House, awarded Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and great personal bravery in combat. Giunta, who is now 25, was 18 and working nights at a fast-food Subway store in Hiawatha, Iowa when he responded to a recruiting ad and decided to join the Army. Before long, he finished basic and advanced infantry training and was sent to Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and began two combat tours in Afghanistan totaling 27 months.
During his first deployment, four of his buddies were killed by a roadside bomb. He began his second tour of duty in the Korengal Valley, a six-mile-long, one-mile-wide hellish strip of mountainous terrain, notorious for the loss of American lives there at the hands of Taliban insurgents. Sgt. Giunta and his fellow soldiers engaged in firefights and daily attacks in a cloud of gunpowder smoke that hung ominously over the blood-drenched valley. On Oct. 25, 2007, two platoons of his Battle Company, 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 erupted. "Tracers, bullets, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], snaps, pops, cracks, explosions, wings, zings, dings" is how Giunta referred to it in an interview with "60 Minutes" a couple of weeks ago.
As Giunta told it, he and his men could see the muzzle flashes in the dusk as bearded men fired at them from within the distance you could throw a baseball. Soldiers dropped to the ground wounded in front of him. Giunta took a round to his chest, but the bullet was stopped by the ceramic plate in his body armor. Through the smoke and dazzling flashes of detonating grenades, Giunta suddenly spotted one of his buddies, Sgt. Joshua Brennan, badly wounded and being carried away by two Taliban gunmen, dragging Brennan by his hands and feet. Capturing an American soldier would be a major victory for the enemy and a psychological defeat for the U.S. Without hesitation, Giunta charged head-on into the Taliban guns, shooting and throwing grenades. Wearing several pounds of gear, and having sustained a blow to his upper body that would have stopped a linebacker, the adrenaline-infused warrior shot one of the two insurgents dead, while the other, who may have been mortally wounded, managed to stumble away and escape, but without the trophy he was hoping for.
When Giunta got to Brennan, the latter was badly wounded in the lower jaw. Although drifting in and out of consciousness, Brennan was aware that he had been rescued from the Taliban. "He knew we were there," Giunta told the "60 Minutes" interviewer, swallowing hard to hold back tears. The wounded soldier was carried to safety and placed in a medevac chopper for transport to a military hospital. Later that night, Brennan died in surgery at the age of 22, the same age as his rescuer. Giunta became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. He joins 86 other living veterans who have been so honored. Every American who has served in military combat belongs to an elite brotherhood, whether medals adorn their uniforms at public gatherings or prayers are said over them at funeral services. It's readily apparent that Sgt. Giunta, having witnessed the nightmare of war and the stench of death, is too humble to cheerfully accept recognition of his bravery as something different from what his buddies would have done.
Reluctant to bask in the attention, when asked how he felt about being a hero, he said, "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 woefully. "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." I must respectfully disagree with Sgt. Giunta. There was nothing average or mediocre about what he did. Furthermore, I'm certain that Joshua Brennan would agree with me.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. E-mail Bob.