Reluctant hero: Soldier becomes first living MOH recipient since Vietnam
February 23, 2011
Don't call Staff Sgt. Salvatore "Sal" Giunta a hero.
Don't say that he went above and beyond the call of duty when he single-handedly stopped two terrorists from kidnapping his wounded buddy during a ferocious firefight in Afghanistan in 2007.
Don't try to tell him his actions were in any way extraordinary or that he's anything but an average Soldier.
Because, as Giunta sees it, he was just doing his job. He didn't do anything that any other paratrooper in 1st Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team-or anyone in the U.S. military for that matter-wouldn't have done, and he can't quite understand the fuss.
He certainly doesn't think he deserves the Medal of Honor, which President Barack Obama presented to Giunta in a White House ceremony Nov. 16, 2010-making the seven-year Army veteran the first non-posthumous recipient since Vietnam.
"This could be any of us," Giunta said of receiving the nation's highest award for valor in combat. "Right now...I'm the one sitting here, but it could be any one of my buddies. It could be anyone in any of the services who are out there doing it every day.
"As for someone calling me a hero, I try not to think about it. I let the words fall away. It seems strange."
After growing up in Iowa and gaining a reputation for mischief, Giunta, now 25, visited an Army recruiter while working at Subway in 2003. A radio commercial he heard had promised free T-shirts to anyone who came by.
"I like free T-shirts," he joked. "You've got to wear a T-shirt. If it's free, it's even better-and it comes with a story. I went down there and I talked to the recruiter and they've got to give you the spiel. That's how they give you the free T-shirt. So I heard what the recruiter had to say and got my T-shirt and left. Over the course of a couple days, (I) started really thinking about what the recruiter had said. We are a nation at war and I am 18 and I am an able-bodied male." Once he found out he could jump out of helicopters, he was hooked.
Before he knew it, in March 2005, Giunta was on his way to southern Afghanistan with the 173rd. He was excited to put his training to use and see action with the storied unit-15 173rd paratroopers have received the Medal of Honor since World War II. He quickly realized that war isn't a game, however, friends get hurt and some don't come home.
"Old people die," he said. "That's what happens. Not a 21-year-old in the prime of his life who's fit. But that's what happens in war. No one's infallible."
At 19, Giunta was ready to get out, perhaps get an education and spend time with his girlfriend Jennifer. But like many Soldiers, including five others from 1st Platoon, Giunta was stop-lossed. The only place he was going was back to Afghanistan.
Now a specialist, Giunta arrived in Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley in June 2007. Located in Kunar province near the Pakistan border, the region is a smuggling route for weapons and insurgents. Dubbed the 'Valley of Death,' the 10-mile-long valley has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war. (U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from the Korengal in April 2010.)
"I did not have a clue," Giunta recalled. "When we got off the helicopter, it didn't look like any Afghanistan I had ever seen before. The mountains were hard and sharp, and also really, really steep. They had a lot of foliage. I think the trees were some sort of holly tree, so the wood was hard, the leaves were sharp."
The steep terrain and high altitude would often turn a walk of a few kilometers into a march lasting six to eight hours, especially in the beginning of the deployment, before the paratroopers became accustomed to the forbidding landscape.
For 15 months, 1st Platoon would call tiny Korengal Outpost and primitive Firebase Vegas home. The Soldiers expanded the sites from a couple of buildings into bunkers and sleeping quarters made of plywood, sandbags and fortification barriers. The men never had running water, but were able to get electricity after a few months.
They spent much of the summer in multiple firefights a day with an enemy who would hide in mountain caves one day, and village houses with human shields the next. It was constant, unrelenting stress that Giunta said the men dealt with by leaning on each other and laughing at things that wouldn't be funny anywhere but a remote mountaintop in Afghanistan. The perfumed letters Jennifer sent from their home base in Italy helped too.
"I could smell the perfume. I had a little pillow and in the pillowcase, I'd just slide all the letters in my pillow, so I'd sleep on her perfume and her letters. And it matters," said Giunta, whose face softens when he looks at his now-wife.
October 19, the men of Battle Company were dropped deep into insurgent territory. Their mission: to look for weapons caches and win a few hearts and minds in the process. Firefights were to be expected, Giunta said. "If you get shot at every day, how much worse can it get'"
Much worse, it turned out, but no one could have predicted the intensity of the bombings and fighting that followed, including a fierce battle that left several 2nd Platoon Soldiers injured or dead.
And when the remaining members of 2nd Platoon visited the village of Landigal to look for weapons, Oct. 27-the final day of Operation Rock Avalanche-1st Platoon was assigned an overwatch position, guarding the high ground above the village on Honcho Hill. Radio chatter indicated insurgents were out for more American blood, but, as Giunta explained, radio chatter always indicated that insurgents were out for American blood.
"This is why we're there," he said. "Let's help (the Afghan people) when we can and if (insurgents) attack us, perfect. Now we can shoot back."
They didn't expect a trap, otherwise the men of 1st Platoon would have taken a different route back to the KOP when, shortly after sunset, they began walking single file down the narrow crest of the steep Gatigal Spur. Thanks to an autumn phenomenon, the moon had already risen and was shining so brightly that they didn't even need night-vision gear.
They didn't get far-only 350 or 400 meters-when a hail of AK-47, PKM and RPG fire from about 15 meters away stopped them cold. About 15-20 enemy fighters were waiting for them behind a crest in the hill, parallel to the trail, in a devastating L-shaped ambush that cut Giunta's squad off from the rest of the platoon.
Sergeant Joshua Brennan, who had been walking point, and Spc. Franklin Eckrode were wounded and separated from the other men, who desperately tried to get to them, returning fire with M4s, SAW automatic weapons and grenades. Apache helicopters watched from the sky, but the fighting was too close for the pilots to distinguish friend from foe.
"Every single man next to me did exactly what he could, which was get down and return fire," Giunta said of the Soldiers' responses. "There wasn't really much cover, so you've got to take the fight back to them. The more rounds you shoot at them, hopefully the less rounds they shoot at you. The less rounds they shoot at you, the less chances you have at getting hit. You've just got to play with what you've got. And that's all we had."
Squad Leader Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo took a round in the helmet. As Giunta watched him fall to the ground, he believed the worst. "Only one thing happens when your head moves like that," he said. He raced through enemy fire and dragged Gallardo, who was only stunned, back to cover and helped him up.
At one point, enemy rounds also hit Giunta in both his vest and the rocket launcher he carried across his back. He had always complained about wearing the heavy body armor, but it stopped the enemy rounds, and he barely flinched. It just felt like someone shoved him.
Something was off, however: the bullets hadn't come from the same direction as the bulk of the fighting. "That's something to always keep in the back of your mind," he said.
With Spc. Kaleb Casey "laying waste" with his M249 SAW automatic weapon, Gallardo, Giunta and Pfc. Garret Clary, who also had an M203, threw grenades and then bounded forward in the aftermath of the explosions. Each time, a wave of enemy fire stopped them, so they dropped to the ground and prepped more grenades before bounding forward again. Casey later reported that every man in the squad had bullet holes in his clothing or equipment.
When they finally reached Eckrode, he was wounded, but conscious, and had been firing his weapon until it jammed. Brennan, however, was missing. While aiding Eckrode, Gallardo put Casey in charge of security and turned to order Giunta to continue the search for Brennan.
But Giunta was already gone.
Because he was "lazy" and out of grenades, Giunta figured that he might as well keep running until he linked up with Brennan. "It's better to shoot with a buddy than be shooting alone."
Clary was trailing him by 10-15 meters, but Giunta didn't know that, nor did he expect to find his good friend Brennan severely wounded and being dragged away by two enemy fighters.
"I didn't understand what was going on," Giunta recalled. "I'll think about that moment a lot. That was something I never thought I would see in the military.... Just reaction-that's all you really have time to do, but after sitting on it for three years, it's more emotional to me now than...it was to me then."
It was part of the Warrior Ethos Giunta didn't have to think twice about, because it went without saying-he wouldn't leave Brennan, and Brennan wouldn't have left him. Any Soldier in the unit would have done the same.
"Going to combat isn't about how strong you are, it's about how strong we are," he said. "These aren't just your buddies...these are your brothers."
Yelling for help and still under heavy fire, Giunta charged forward alone and fired the 15 or 20 rounds remaining in his M4, killing one of the insurgents and wounding the other. But he did more than save Brennan, Gallardo later explained. The true nightmare of any leader is a Soldier missing in action, and Giunta prevented that.
"They would have definitely, definitely taken him to a lot worse place," said Gallardo, who received a Silver Star for his actions during the battle. "There's no way we would have come out of that valley without Brennan.... Giunta definitely saved a lot more lives that night."
While Clary stood guard, the fight continued around them. Giunta and Gallardo, who had come running, found a slight dip in the ground where they could protect Brennan, and feverishly went to work on him. He was covered with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, but worse were the injuries to Brennan's face. He couldn't breathe, and the wounds required care far beyond what they could provide with basic lifesaving skills. They went through three first-aid kits before cutting apart their own clothing, doing anything and everything they could think of to stop the bleeding. They called for help, and tried to comfort him by talking about home.
As 1st Platoon finally seized control, Soldiers brought other casualties to where Brennan lay, including the platoon's beloved medic, Spc. Hugo Mendoza, who had been shot in the leg while trying to help another Soldier. He had lost too much blood, and was already dead.
"That's when I knew the shit had hit the fan. We were in a position we didn't want to be in. We don't have our medic. I have a severe casualty," Gallardo remembered. Soldiers from 3rd Platoon came running when they heard the battle erupt, but with the rough terrain, it was still another 10 or 15 minutes before they reached that hillside. Their medic gave Brennan a tracheotomy on the spot, buying enough time for a medevac helicopter to arrive, and giving the paratroopers hope.
They still had a long two-and-a-half-hour walk back to the KOP, but as far as they knew, Brennan was in surgery. He would make it-that's what they kept telling themselves. Most of the Soldiers, including Giunta, hadn't heard about Mendoza yet. Each man knew only about his small piece of the battle, which had been chaotic and overwhelming and is even now a blur for many of them.
"I just hoped and prayed," said Giunta. "We got back and the first sergeant had the cook cook us up some wings and corn dogs, which (was) awesome, you know.... You talk to your buddies: 'OK, you're good. You're OK,' like that." But it wasn't long before Battle Company's commander, now-Maj. Dan Kearney of the 3rd Ranger Battalion, told the paratroopers that Mendoza was gone and Brennan had died in surgery.
"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."
Giunta explained that after a Soldier died, his buddies normally leaned on each other for support, but this time was different. The Army wanted a lot from the men of 1st Platoon, particularly Spc. Sal Giunta. They gave sworn statements, and there were investigations and interviews with reporters who were embedded in the valley with Battle Company.
"You know, we're infantry-we're not good writers, we're not good storytellers-and by the time everyone was done with their sworn statements and turned those in, no one wanted to talk about it. We joked about the good times," Giunta said. The men are all still close, and always observe Oct. 25, Gallardo said. But Giunta added that he's never talked about the battle with even his closest Family members and battle buddies.
He called Jennifer and his mother, Rose, as soon as he could for the distraction, but he couldn't tell them the details. Both knew from his voice that something terrible had happened, and Jennifer had heard the basics from another spouse. But it's only as he's done media interviews in the past few months that they've learned the full story of what happened on that mountainside.
"I could tell that he wasn't doing well, but...when I hear that tone of voice, he doesn't want to talk about it," Jennifer said. "He said, 'How are you doing'' I kind of told him what I'd been doing and maybe five minutes went by and I said, 'Look, I know what happened. Are you OK' I'm so sorry. Are you OK'' And he said, 'I'm fine. Don't worry about me. I'm fine.' I said, 'Shut up. I know you're fine. I know you're physically OK, because you're talking to me right now, but are you really OK'' And again he said, 'I'm fine. I'm OK.' It was too soon for him to want to talk about it."
Kearney originally decided to recommend Giunta for the Medal of Honor three years ago-the night of the ambush-saying that if Giunta's actions weren't worthy of the Medal of Honor, then he didn't know what was.
"It started sounding like some story I had read about in World War II with Audie Murphy," he remembered. "You don't hear about single individuals taking on the responsibility to leave their squad when they're a specialist, treat their squad leader after they've been shot and then go repatriate their best friend from behind enemy lines, then to run back into the kill zone to start treating his men."
But Giunta refused to believe it would ever happen until he heard the president's voice on the phone congratulating him.
"For almost three years, someone's like 'Hey, you're in for the Medal of Honor,'" he said. "Oh, no. I don't think that's me. Just deny. It's not worth it. That's something that's going to be a big thing and that's not what I need right now. I've got enough stuff going on. And to hear President Obama on the phone, that was a moment of 'ohhohh.'
"It was exciting and it was thrilling...my heart was beating...my ears were closing. I had my wife Jen by my side, and she (was) squeezing my hand. And it was positive, but at the same time, it almost seemed unreal," he remembered.
While he doesn't remember exactly what the president said over the phone, Giunta will never forget the moment Obama went off-script during his Medal of Honor ceremony. "I really like this guy," Obama said to a tightly packed audience of cabinet members, former Medal of Honor recipients, Giunta's Family and fellow Soldiers and the Brennan and Mendoza Families.
"I think anybody-we all just get a sense of people and who they are, and when you meet Sal and you meet his Family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about," Obama continued. "And it just makes you proud. And so this is a joyous occasion for me."
For Giunta, standing at attention as the president hung the pale blue ribbon around his neck, the experience was surreal and far more bitter than sweet. It was an honor, of course, but not one he ever asked for or wanted, he said. Giunta believes anyone would have done the same, and hates the fact that his name will go down in the history books for doing his job while the courageous acts and sacrifices of other servicemembers remain unrecognized.
"I have never gone to war alone," he said. "I have never been in a firefight alone and I've never felt alone in the Army. There were a lot of other guys who did incredible stuff. The only reason I was able to do what I did is because they were doing everything they could do.
"They make it sound like so much of the bullets were focused on me; bullets don't discriminate. They were on every single man who was there. And now, you're going to put a medal around my neck and shake my hand and congratulate me, and everyone's going to be proud of me' I didn't do anything other than what I was supposed to. I know two men personally gave every single tomorrow they'll ever have.
"This is for everyone who has been to Iraq, everyone who has been to Afghanistan, everyone who has to suck it up for awhile without their Family, and it's about the Families who have to suck it up when their husband or wife is deployed. This is for all of us. This is for everyone who sacrifices for their country, who sacrifices for America."