By Mr. Kelly C Luster (CECOM)November 16, 2012
Oct. 25, 2007, was like any other day in Afghanistan. Giunta and the Soldiers in his platoon set out in the pre-dawn hours as part of a battalion-wide mission to recover equipment taken from a scout and gun team overrun by enemy fighters on a patrol days before. It was critical to recover the equipment according to Giunta. They had an "M240-Bravo, suppressed M4s, Night Vision Goggles, lots of ammo," he said. "One of the critical pieces for us was the Night Vision Goggles. We owned the night. We can see things they can't, we used infrared lasers for a lot of the stuff we do. We mark with infrared lasers. We see it, they can't. Now, all of the sudden they can see everything we can see."
After sitting in place roughly 14 hours, with the sun starting to set, his unit started planning to withdrawal from the operation. Above them on the mountain 3rd platoon had the high ground, and below in the village was 2nd platoon. Providing over-watch were two Apaches and a Blackhawk with the command group.
Uncharacteristically, the platoon had to leave by the same route it arrived. "We never go in the way we go out," said Giunta. "It creates a pattern. It's bad business, we don't do it." In this case, there was really no other choice, they could jump off the mountain or return the way they came.
Unpretentious and without airs, standing about 5 feet 10 inches, weighing 175 pounds, Sal likely would blend into most crowds on most days. Today however, he walked onto to stage to a thundering ovation. The entire time motioning "down" with his hands to those who came to hear him speak and saying, "please, please…take your seats…you're too kind…"
But such is the character of the man who came to Myer Auditorium at the C4ISR Center of Excellence. Retired Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, is a very modest man. Having stood with him only moments prior to his introduction as he prepared to walk onto stage, one could only imagine just how modest a man.
Sal, as he prefers to be called, reached into his left inside suit pocket and retrieved from it a light-blue ribbon adorned with thirteen white stars in the front, upon which there is an eagle clasping a gold bar upon which the word "Valor" is written, an inverted five-point gold star hangs just below--in the center is Minerva's head surrounded by a wreath and the words "United States of America." Sal only places the Medal of Honor around his neck just before he prepares to address the audience. He said, "I only wear this for the people who came to hear me speak, not for me."
Giunta, is one in a lineup of several distinguished speakers scheduled at the C4ISR Center of Excellence as part of an ongoing professional development series of speakers for the employees at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command here. Also scheduled are Vernice Armour, former U.S. Marine captain known as "Flygirl" who becoming America's first African American female combat pilot; author, motivational speaker, West Point graduate and former Army officer, Ed Ruggero; and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter G. Pace.
Each of the guest speakers will discuss varius areas of interest. Vernice Armour will discuss driving diversity, Ed Ruggero will cover preparing tomorrow's leaders today, and Peter Pace will talk about leadership up and down. Sal Giunta began by talking about service and sacrifice.
"This is kind of a special place for me to come to," said Giunta as he began. "I think this group is different from most groups I talk to. War is not fought by an individual. It is fought by a collective group of people. And it's not just the people fighting in combat; it's all the support behind those people in combat. This is a true place of support."
Although Giunta wears the nation's highest military medal for valor, he paid tribute to everyone who served in the military by asking everyone in the audience who served in any branch of America's armed services to stand to be recognized.
"If you have ever served in any branch of the service, in war or peace, raise your hand," said Giunta. "If you volunteered to support your country will you please stand and be recognized. Stand up. Thank you for your service."
Sal explained to the listeners why service to one's country is beyond reproach and should be held in the highest regard by everyone.
"To wear the uniform, or having worn the uniform, you have written a blank check to the United States of America for up to and including your life," said Giunta. "It's not up to you when it gets cashed. It's not up to you how much it will be worth or how much it'll be cashed in for. It's not for your own benefit, but for our country's benefit and for that--I thank you."
As he began recounting the events that occurred in the pre-dawn hours five years ago to the day, Giunta earlier said it doesn't get easier to talk about. And then he began where he always begins.
"Well, I'll start at the start. I was an easily excitable child. I didn't have a whole lot of direction. I wasn't very goal-oriented, I had a lot of energy and I liked to go in every direction at the same time. This made me not the best of students, but an exciting kid."
He said he remembered Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a sophomore in high school in Eastern Iowa. Giunta said his chemistry teacher turned on the TV because an airplane had just flown into one of the World Trade Centers in New York. And then the second aircraft flew into the second tower. It was then it became an act of terrorism--a deliberate act of war.
"I felt this anger inside me," he said. "I felt this burning and steam and I wanted to do something and I wanted to get them back, but I didn't know how. But, as life does for so many people who are 16-years-old and in high school, life moves on."
Giunta said his focus moved to graduating high school and the feeling of getting back at those who had perpetrated the act of terrorism in New York subsided--or at least he thought.
Where Giunta grew up in Iowa, he said there wasn't a strong military presence, nor was there a member of his family in the military. "It just sounded like possibly something fun to do," he said.
Late one evening Giunta was mopping the floor at his job at a local Subway where he was a 'Sandwich Artist.' He said he heard an advertisement on the radio for a local Army recruiter who was giving away free T-shirts. According to Giunta, he wasn't planning to make Subway a career and a free T-shirt sounded pretty good.
The next day he found himself face-to-face with an Army recruiter who pitched the sales pitch of the century.
"Son," the recruiter began. "We're a country at war. We've been in Afghanistan since 2001. On March 26, 2003, we entered Iraq. We're fighting on two fronts. At 18-years-old if you want to make a tangible difference--a physical difference you can see at that moment, join the military."
Giunta said it was a pretty solid speech, but it still didn't sell him volunteering for the military. "I just came here for the free T-shirt," he said. Giunta took his shirt and left. But over the next 10 days, what the recruiter said resonated within him. Giunta felt he could make a difference and it sounded like an adventure. So he went back to the recruiting station and enlisted.
The recruiter said, "Alright, what do you want to do?" Giunta said until that point he didn't know there were jobs in the Army. He thought it was just like the "Army" and then the Army just sorted it out and then gave you something to do.
"I want to spit, swear, shoot guns, jump out of planes, fight bad guys and drink beer," said Giunta. "The recruiter said, "We have that job description--Airborne Infantry--it's going be perfect."
He enlisted for four years. But he didn't really set any goals other than getting deployed and fighting the enemies of his country. But when he actually went in to the Army, he learned something very different--you don't just get to join and go fight, come back and kiss pretty girls and drink beer--there is training, training, and more training through which you earn respect, service and responsibility.
Giunta said there's an understanding of a system that has been in place long before he joined the Army.
"Most people learn lessons are taught through pushups and flutter kicks. That's how I learned best," said Giunta.
But physical conditioning was not the only attribute the Army had to offer said Giunta. The Army brought together people from more walks of life from different backgrounds and from various parts of the country, then dropped them all into one place and watched them grow into one cohesive unit working together like a finely tuned and oiled machine.
"We were from all over the United States…from Washington, Florida, New York, and Iowa. They put us with each other not as leaders and subordinates, but as peers in a completely different situation from anything we were used to. They taught us things none of had thought to learn before. We learned not to rely on ourselves, but rather to rely on those around us. I'm with a bunch of other new guys, and because I'm part of this team and I've started building this family, this strength, this bond that will carry us through combat."
After basic training Giunta went to Airborne School and then reported to his unit in Vicenza, Italy, the 173rd Infantry. "I remember sitting in that recruiter's office looking at a magazine," said Giunta. "There was a picture of this guy down on one knee, he had parachute crap hanging all over the place, he was muddy in the dirt, and he had just jumped into Iraq. That was the 173rd."
Giunta said he felt very fortunate to be assigned to the 173rd.
"They were a special group--true Soldiers. Not just any Soldiers, but Soldiers with experience, with knowledge, men who were willing to impart that knowledge through counseling and mentorship, through pushups! It was a pretty good place to be able to come in and be able to be put to the test immediately. No one is going to cut anyone any slack!"
The men Giunta served with led by example. Nobody expected us to do something they hadn't already done or weren't out in front of the formation leading the way. The 173rd had high standards for every Soldier, regardless of rank or position.
"In the 173rd, they didn't ask me to run a 12-minute 2-mile, they ran a 12-minute 2-mile and they said you better keep up!" said Giunta.
The 173rd was also full of experience. Soldiers who had been to war and could pass on valuable lessons learned to the new guys.
"I came into the military under strong leaders--strong young leaders," said Giunta. "My team leader was 21-years-old and had a year of combat experience and a jump star--a combat jump on his wings and had seen death. His name was Sergeant Nicholas Post. He told me that war was not everything I thought. It was going to be difficult. It was going to be hard and we can say we train as we fight, but it will always be harder when it really happens. Because the stakes are high! In training you can run the lane again, you can try again, in combat there are no second chances."
Giunta said the day before his unit was due to deploy to Afghanistan was one of the most exciting days of his life. No other day in his life to that point could compare.
"I remember the day we were going to deploy. I have never been more excited for anything in my entire life. I was never more ready to get something underway than my first chance at combat--my first chance to serve my country. But then I got there and I realized, Afghanistan is a really different world from what I expected, it wasn't going to be what I had seen on TV, it wasn't going to go down how I expected."
After arriving in Afghanistan, Giunta and approximately 35 other troops spent most of their time about 20 klicks away from any other "friendlys" in the middle of the mountains running missions day 24/7. Not long after they arrived at their mud hut in the middle of Afghanistan, a truck bringing supplies to fortify their position hit an IED killing several Soldiers. Giunta was among those detailed to recover the Soldiers' remains.
"This was the first time I ever experienced a true loss," he said. "I served with these guys. I saw what they were capable of. This isn't someone who forgot to look both ways when crossing the street. These were the biggest, the strongest the fastest people I'd ever met. They died in a second--reduced to a mess on the ground--and it hurt me. I didn't know how to handle it. I'd seen dead people before, but they were all old and they weren't wearing the same uniform I was wearing…this was different."
Within a week or so, Giunta's unit was tracking a high-value target when they lost another Soldier. Their numbers quickly dropped from 35 to 29 and it had a dire effect on Giunta's emotional state.
"I got down on myself and I started thinking this isn't really what I signed up for, I'm not signing up to be a target or a sucker, but I don't how to handle this any other way and I have a pretty good feeling this crappy mountain in Afghanistan is going to be the last place I see."
If not for one of the experienced 173rd NCOs, Giunta might have remained in his slump.
"I was sitting on my cot one day all sad faced," said Giunta. "My team leader, Sgt. Post, came in and he had said, 'What's wrong dude?' and I just told him, I think this isn't going to play out well for us. I think this is "Bad News Bears" and he said in the simplest words, 'Tomorrow will come whether you're in it or not. What you have is the opportunity to do is make a difference. If when it's your time to make a difference, you give 100 percent, you cannot regret the outcome.' Simple words, I'm a simple man, but meaningful, but he was right. If I get sad or get down on myself, I can't be productive at the level I was before and there's lot to regret of you're only working at 90 percent."
Fortunately, those words motivated Giunta and helped him through the rest of his deployment. Upon arriving back in Italy he learned another lesson that was common, though tough among Soldiers across the Army at the time--Stop Loss. While Giunta was nearing the end of his enlistment and was ready to end his adventure and move on to the next chapter, the Army made other plans for him.
"By them [the Army] having other plans I was able to get promoted," said Giunta. "I became a leader. I had the ability to lead the way I was led--and that's by example. A leader by definition should be in front. A leader shouldn't say, 'Hey go do that,' they should say 'follow me!' That's the kind of leadership I was under. That's the kind of leader I wanted to become."
Becoming a leader was only a small part of what the Army had in store for Giunta. Additionally, elements of the 173rd were already preparing to deploy to Afghanistan again including Giunta's unit.
Arriving in-country again in 2007, Giunta immediately recognized they were in a far different world from his previous deployment. "We were in different terrain," he said. "It was much more mountainous. We were half way up a mountainside. About 135 troops spread across a valley, six miles by six miles. We had three FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) set up. The closest one was directly across the valley--straight-line distance probably two klicks (2 kilometers) walking distance four to eight hours depending on the weather and how high the river was. And [enemy] contact was every day."
The other thing Giunta said was different about this deployment was his ability and confidence to lead his team. "As a leader I was able to instill the confidence in my guys that was instilled in me--the same confidence that was instilled in me through work ethic," said Giunta. "We know we came here more prepared…we're bigger, we're faster, we're stronger, and we worked harder."
Because the terrain was so tight and so difficult to traverse the platoon walked in single file with about a 10-15 meter-interval between each Soldier to avoid an incoming enemy grenade killing more than one Soldier. As they started to move, perhaps no more than 400 meters from where they lay in wait the entire day, "…it seemed like the whole world kind of exploded on us," said Giunta. As it turned out, what exploded was an L-shaped ambush Giunta's comrades had just walked into.
Giunta said his immediate reaction was to check the two men on his team--the two directly under his command. As he turned he saw Pfc. Kaleb Casey standing straight up with an M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) with his finger pressing the trigger. Giunta said, "He stood there and just started roping rounds. He shot all 200 rounds, he didn't stop, and he didn't take his finger off the trigger…at night, when you shoot that fast--he looked like a dragon blowing fire. By him doing this, he allowed us the freedom of movement."
Pfc. Garrett Clary began firing his M203 grenade launcher. He was firing 40mm grenades, which are about the size of a fist. The ambush line, according to Giunta, was extremely close, so the grenades were likely landing beyond the line. Giunta turned his attention back to the front, toward the ambush because Clary and Casey were doing what they needed to be doing by providing suppressive fire for survival of the group.
As Giunta moved forward he saw Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo drop and his head twitch "in a bad way," Giunta said. "I was overcome with anger. I ran forward because I thought I needed to grab Gallardo because I thought I needed him not to get shot. I ran forward and I grabbed the handle on the back of his vest. As I was running back he started stumbling to his feet."
After a quick inventory of grenades, Giunta and Gallardo began bounding forward to link up with two other Soldiers who were still forward of their position, Spc. Frank Eckrode and Sgt. Josh Brennan. After throwing grenades at enemy positions and bounding, they made it to Eckrode.
"As I threw my last grenade we came up on Eckrode," said Giunta. "Eckrode was shot twice in the leg and twice in the chest. The vest stopped both of the shots to the chest. As we were running forward, Gallardo went to Eckrode. Because of what Gallardo instilled in us--confidence in one-another--I knew Eckrode was going to be fine."
As night continued close in around him, Giunta continued to make his way forward looking for his friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan. "I ran all the way up front. I figured I'd run and fight next to Brennan. I knew Brennan charged the Ambush line."
But as he arrived where Brennan should have been, he was perplexed--his friend was not there. So he continued a little further when he finally saw three figures in the dimly lit night. But this too was confusing.
"I couldn't grasp who beat me up there and why they were going so far in the wrong direction," he said. "As I came to realize what I was really seeing was two enemies, two bad guys, whatever you want to call them, carrying away Sgt. Brennan--one by the hands and one by the feet. I tried my best to eliminate the threat. I shot both of them--dropped one on the spot--the other one jumped over the side. I grabbed Brennan and took off back the direction I came. The same way I had with Gallardo, by that handle on the back of his vest, he [Brennan] was alive…he was shot about seven times, in his legs, his arms, his chest, his mouth. He was talking the whole time…"
Giunta started working on his friend, trying to provide as much first aid as he could while calling for a medic. The entire time he reassured his friend and told him one day he'd be telling 'hero stories.'
Giunta had no way of knowing at the time why the medic never came. Spec. Hugo Mendoza, the combat medic held in such high regard by everyone in the unit and upon whom Giunta had called two times prior to this night, had been mortally wounded during the ambush.
As the firefight ended a MEDEVAC arrived to get the casualties out. Sgt. Brennan was the first to be hoisted due to the seriousness of his injuries. Prior to loading the wounded and dead however, equipment had to be separated. Weapons, ammunition, ballistic vests, assault packs protective gear, essentially anything the Soldiers were carrying when they started the patrol was now divided among their fellow Soldiers to carry back from the patrol.
Giunta said "The responsibility that once belonged to another person, now belongs to us--our team--our brothers. It was heavy. I carried Bennan's weapon. I carried his assault pack. I carried the extra "small D." I carried the extra rounds and I felt that and I missed him already."
As the men completed the two--hour hump back to their base camp, they discovered Spc. Eckrode was going to be fine. Two other Soldiers who were injured in the firefight were also fine. They were in and out of surgery. However, not all news was good. The unit's beloved medic, Spc. Hugo Mendoza, was killed-in-action during the ambush and Sgt. Josh Brennan succumbed to his injuries during surgery.
Over the next few days the Soldiers conducted AARs and drafted sworn statements ensuring they did what they were supposed to do. The Army prides itself on learning from mistakes and lessons learned. On the third day, Giunta's company commander told him he was being recommended for the Medal of Honor. He said "How can you try to award something on such a terrible day? How can you award me with anything? That entire firefight I shot maybe 30 rounds--maybe one magazine. While Casey stood up and roped out a 1000, maybe 2000 rounds and made himself a target. Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo had done everything I did. I did exactly what was expected of me and what I would expect anyone else to do. I no longer worked at Subway. We were professional Soldiers. We didn't enlist to learn accounting or learn how to type. We signed up shoot weapons and bad guys. This is what was expected of us."
And, just as was expected of good Soldiers, four days later, he and his Soldiers were back out on patrol. "One bad day happens all the time to different units or different groups--not just in the army--it happens to everyone. But what we're expected to do is to continue. We still have a job, we still have a mission, and we still have a team that exists. And now, we owe it to our brothers to continually give one hundred percent because they already gave their one hundred percent the day they needed to," said Giunta. He and his friends in the 173rd wouldn't leave Afghanistan until the following July totaling more 15 months in combat.
Ending as he started--ever so humble--taking his right index finger and pointing to the Medal of Honor around his neck Giunta said, "The only reason this is around my neck is because that's where it's supposed to be worn. The only reason why I'm the only one wearing it is because it's only big enough for one. What this medal represents is all of us--all of us who have fought--those who have died, not just in this war, but also past wars. Those who have made America, America, and those who keep America, America. Too often we take these privileges, these freedoms, these rights we receive because we were fortunate enough to be born here, and we take them because they were given to us freely, but they do not come for free…this medal represents all those who made sure we can live free, all of us can be free, and stay free."
While Giunta has hardly any regrets in life, there are a few. He said he would have loved to have gone to Ranger School. "I can't do it as a civilian," he said. Also, while he may be the recipient of the Medal of Honor, there were so many other good troops on that mountain that night--names often pushed aside when his is recognized. "Those guys who cared more about the people to the left and to the right--the guys who are the reason why I was standing on that stage. In this time in this picture that is painted, my brush stroke wasn't the first, isn't the last, wasn't the most spectacular, wasn't the biggest or the brightest, it just simply filled that space, all the other space was filled by the men around me."
The opportunity to hear a Medal of Honor recipient speak is rare. According to the Medal of Honor Society official statistics, there are 81 living Medal of Honor recipients with only three from the current war in Afghanistan including Giunta, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, and retired Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer. Four Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty while serving in Iraq by Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, Master-At-Arms 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, Army Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, and Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham.
Giunta said the Medal [of Honor] has provided him a platform from which to speak about issues he deems important to the moral fiber and the future of the America. In particular, he believes taking every opportunity to speak young adults is an opportunity not to be missed to ensure to the success of our country and our military.
"I like to talk to high school and college kids," he said. "They don't understand how many opportunities are out there for them. Everything is an opportunity. Doors only close when let them close."
"I talk about commitment and I enjoy service and I use the military because that's where I got it from, but we're all capable of doing anything we want," said Giunta. "An average person can become an incredible person with what you decide to do with your life and how you decide to go about it."
In the end, it was not retired Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta who should be humbled before us--but rather us before him.