WASHINGTON — Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta has made no attempt to hide just how uncomfortable he is with the attention and accolades surrounding the Medal of Honor that he’ll formally receive on Tuesday.
“I’m a regular line soldier, so this is a new world, sitting out here under these lights in the field with these cameras pointed on us, talking with a little, secret earpiece,” he said during a Pentagon press conference in September, shortly after his name and story were made public. “It’s definitely interesting and exciting.”
It was also a preview of a new reality for Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient for actions in the current wars.
He is no longer a regular line soldier. He’s the first living active-duty servicemember to be awarded the nation’s highest honor for battlefield heroics since the Vietnam War, a role that automatically sets him apart from his peers.
“The minute that medal goes around your neck, your life changes,” said Doug Sterner, a military historian who runs the Home of Heroes website. “He now has a different role to serve.”
On Tuesday, Giunta will receive the medal at a White House ceremony. He’ll stand on stage before his family, fellow soldiers and Defense Department leaders as President Barack Obama describes the heroism the 25-year-old displayed on Oct. 25, 2007, when he challenged a pair of Taliban fighters at point-blank range to rescue a wounded comrade who was being dragged away. And then he’ll shake the president’s hand and receive his medal as dozens of photographers and video cameras record every second.
Army officials haven’t said what Giunta’s future responsibilities will entail, or whether he’ll be allowed to deploy again to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. During his unit’s last rotation, he was kept behind as part of the rear detachment’s support mission.
Sterner said any future combat is unlikely.
“Since World War II, it has been highly unusual to send a Medal of Honor recipient back into battle,” he said. “The last thing in the world the military wants is to see one of these guys killed in action.”
It’s happened before, although officials at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society couldn’t say how many times.
Navy Lt. Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare received a Medal of Honor for his heroics in 1942 and was shot down by friendly fire over the Pacific Ocean a year later. Marine Sgt. John Basilone was honored for heroism on Guadalcanal in 1942 but was killed during the first day of fighting on Iwo Jima in 1945. Army Maj. Gen. Keith Ware was awarded the medal for actions in France in 1944 but was killed in action in Vietnam 24 years later.
Most recipients have been pushed to noncombat roles, either recruiting or training. Sterner said that Giunta very well may go back to Afghanistan “but in a morale-boosting or inspirational role.”
Back at his home base, Guinta’s role and stature will be immediately affected by the honor.
Under federal law, Medal of Honor recipients are guaranteed a $1,000 monthly pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs, invitations to presidential inaugurations, special base passes for family members and “on base billeting commensurate with the prestige associated with the Medal of Honor.”
In the last week, Army officials have kept Giunta‘s media availability to a minimum, hoping not to overshadow the White House ceremony. But that didn’t stop a crush of new media coverage.
Filmmakers behind the documentary “Restrepo” released a new cut of their film last week to include more about his heroics. And Iowa Public Television recorded its own documentary on Giunta, including interviews with friends and family from his hometown of Hiawatha, population 6,500.