By Elizabeth M. CollinsNovember 17, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 17, 2010) -- Top DoD and Army officials inducted Staff Sgt. Salvatore "Sal" Giunta of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes Wednesday, making him the first active-duty servicemember added to the hallowed chamber in a generation.
Giunta's name was enshrined on a plaque that will hang in the Pentagon hallway commemorating Medal of Honor recipients, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates presented Giunta with a Medal of Honor flag, while Secretary of the Army John McHugh gave him a framed photo and citation during the ceremony.
"While we can never fail or forget to honor the fallen, we also need living heroes - men and women who overcame every fear and every obstacle - to inspire, to teach, and to ennoble us by what they have done," Gates said. "Heroes like Sal Giunta."
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army, noted that of the 389 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who have received the Medal of Honor since World War II, including 15 other paratroopers from the 173rd, only one third have received it in person.
"This is an incredible occasion," McHugh told the standing-room-only crowd that included Giunta's battle buddies from the 173rd and past Medal of Honor recipients.
"All of us are humbled by this experience and honored to be in the company of those who have joined you here today, living and past, who have preceded you in the company and memory and stories of all the heroes who have written in their blood and in their sacrifice, the history and the freedom of these great United States," McHugh said.
Giunta, then a specialist, was on his second deployment to Afghanistan with 1st Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd ABCT, to the remote and dangerous Korengal Valley on Oct. 25, 2007. Nicknamed the "Valley of Death," it is located near the Pakistan border and was home to some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the L-shaped ambush that cut Giunta's platoon in half and left Sgt. Joshua Brennan and Spc. Franklin Eckrode injured and lying in the open.
During the fierce fighting that followed, Giunta's squad leader, Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, took a round in the helmet and fell to the ground, stunned. Believing he had been injured or killed, Giunta ran through heavy fire to help him, taking two enemy bullets in his own equipment in the process.
Together with Spc. Kaleb Casey and Pfc. Garret Clary, the two men threw grenades and ran forward in the cover of the explosions until they reached Eckrode, who was injured, but had continued to fire his weapon until it jammed.
Brennan was missing, however, and as Giunta crested a hill, looking for him, figuring they could shoot together, he was stunned to see the outline of two enemy fighters dragging Brennan away from the battle.
"It didn't make sense," he remembered.
Yelling, but without waiting for help, Giunta charged alone through the battle that was still going on around him and fired the 15 or 20 rounds left in his M4, killing one insurgent and wounding the other.
And while bullets continued to whiz around them, he and Gallardo desperately went to Brennan's aide, even cutting apart their own clothing in an effort to stop the bleeding from the gunshot and shrapnel wounds that covered his body. But Brennan later died in surgery and the platoon's beloved medic, Spc. "Doc" Hugo Mendoza, was also killed during the battle.
"To all the ones who can't be here, not just one or two, not just from the 173rd, not just from Battle Company, but from all services, from the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the Reserves, everyone who has ever given so much more than I ever know, I want to say 'Thank you' right now to those men and those women because without them, I'm nothing," Giunta said.
"I'm nothing. I haven't given anything compared to those who have given everything," he said during the ceremony, after explaining it was his toughest crowd yet and visibly wiping away a tear.
They're the real heroes, he's said in interviews. He only did what he was trained to do, what anyone else would have done.
"What a great statement of the ethos that Sal lives by and that binds our Army together after nine years at war," Casey said. "And, Sal, I just say that anyone might not have done what you did, but maybe just anyone who happened to be an American paratrooper."
"Sergeant, your modesty and your humility, together with your valor, truly set you apart," Gates added. "Though you call yourself, and I quote 'mediocre,' you are clearly exceptional, even amongst the fellow warriors you so graciously extol. But more importantly, you are a living example, a reminder to America that there are heroes - modern heroes that live and walk amongst us, heroes who are still fighting and dying to protect us every day."