By U.S. ArmyApril 19, 2017
A Soldier who bounded forward to recover wounded during an ambush in Afghanistan was the Army's first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam conflict.
Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta got a call, Sept. 9, 2010, from then-President Barack Obama, letting him know he will be that Medal of Honor recipient due to the efforts he made in Afghanistan to save the lives of fellow Soldiers, even though doing so put his own life in the balance.
It was for Giunta's actions, Oct. 25, 2007, in the Korengal Valley's Gatigal Spur in Afghanistan that he earned the nation's highest honor. It was then, serving as part of 1st Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, that he and his team were ambushed by Anti-Afghan Forces armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Salvatore ("Sal") Augustine Giunta was born in Iowa, the winter of 1985. He is the oldest of three children of Steven, a medical equipment technician, and Rosemary, a pre-school teacher.
Staff Sgt. Giunta was raised in Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, Iowa. Childhood adventures were in many instances a forerunner of Staff Sgt. Giunta's adult life and experiences in the Army. As a kindergartner, his mother taught him how to remove the screen from his ground-level bedroom window to escape in an emergency, such as a fire. That night, he reportedly packed a suitcase, crawled out the window, and attempted to take advantage of his new-found freedom -- but made it only as far as a neighbor's because he did not know where to go. The open window escape route, coupled with sense of adventure, willing to tempt the unknown, and resultant wanderlust, may have inspired his attendance at the U.S. Army Airborne School and military service as a paratrooper.
In high school, the charismatic and outgoing Salvatore seems to have been, according to his parents, more interested in "socializing and goofing off" than in grades - and the open window frequently provided him with many opportunities to do so. Indeed, his parents have said his "energy" could be "challenging." Examples of his good humor and frivolity include the time "when he stole the mouse from his math teacher's computer, or (snuck) out to put a Kennedy High School shirt on an opposing team's statue." A neighbor later recalled that Salvatore's "bravery" stood out when he was in high school.
Salvatore was a junior at Kennedy High School when hijacked commercial jets were intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. His mother recalled that Salvatore immediately wanted to bring the family together and ensure their safety by picking up his brother from middle school and sister from elementary school, and she remembers telling him: "If the world falls part, I guess I can count on you." It was probably this same overriding sense of family and concern for his rifle platoon brothers, and his recognized bravery, that motivated his actions in Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 2007.
In summing up his life prior to joining the Army in 2003, Salvatore said, "The first 18 years of my life were in Iowa. I'm an Iowan." With characteristic humility, he added, "Every single person who has touched my life has made me who I am today ... the only responsibility I claim for myself is if I screw up."
While there were indications that Staff Sgt. Giunta had been recommended for the Medal of Honor and that the nomination had a good chance of approval, it was not until Sept. 10, 2010 that the White House announced that Staff Sgt. Giunta would receive the Medal of Honor, the first awarded to a living recipient since the Vietnam War.
On the previous day, Sept. 9, 2010, then-President Barack Obama telephoned Staff Sgt. Giunta to personally inform him that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor and to thank him for his gallant and selfless service.
"President Obama said 'thank you' for what I did," Staff Sgt. Giunta said in an interview after receiving the phone call from the President. "My heart was pounding in my chest, so much that my ears almost stopped hearing. I had my wife by my side. She was holding my hand. When she heard me say, 'Mr. President,' she gave me a squeeze."
Since being thrust into the national limelight on Sept. 10, 2010, Staff Sgt. Giunta has continuously reacted with characteristic modesty and humility. "This was a situation we were put into," Staff Sgt. Giunta observed. "By no means did I do anything that everyone else wouldn't have done.
"It's all kind of blurry," he stated a few days after the Medal of Honor announcement, "There wasn't a whole lot of thinking I needed to do. Looking at it like a picture, I'm just another brushstroke in the picture."
"I didn't run up to do anything heroic. Everybody's been shot at, and I might as well run forward," Staff Sgt. Giunta said he thought at the time.
In the wake of the Medal of Honor announcement, Staff Sgt. Giunta also candidly observed that Oct. 25, 2007, was "one of the worst days of my life, and when I revisit it, it kind of guts me a little bit more every time." He also described his award of the Medal of Honor as "bittersweet": "It's a huge honor ... but it does bring back memories of all the people I'd love to share this moment with who are no longer with us."
Indeed, Staff Sgt. Giunta's mother recalls her son telling her that, "The Medal [of Honor] should go to the guy on the right of me and the guy on the left of me. We were all in the fight."
Staff Sgt. Giunta has continued to demonstrate reluctance for being singled out for his remarkable heroism, observing that, "This respect that people are giving to me? This was one moment. In my battalion, I am mediocre at best. This shows how great the rest of them are."
Humbly summing up the situation, Staff Sgt. Giunta stated, "If I'm a hero, then every man that stands round me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero."
Staff Sgt. Giunta's personification of the Warrior Ethos, his selfless leadership, and his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above the beyond the call of duty" provide tremendous inspiration and exemplify the very best of the American Soldier today.
We'll be highlighting U.S. Army Europe's history over the next 7 weeks as we countdown to our 75th birthday. Follow along with #75Strong!
About us: U.S. Army Europe is uniquely positioned in its 51 country area of responsibility to advance American strategic interests in Europe and Eurasia. The relationships we build during more than 1,000 theater security cooperation events in more than 40 countries each year lead directly to support for multinational contingency operations around the world, strengthen regional partnerships and enhance global security.