WASHINGTON — Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, a soldier who risked his life to stop Taliban fighters from kidnapping a fallen comrade, will be the first living U.S. servicemember from either Iraq or Afghanistan to receive the Medal of Honor, White House officials announced Friday.
President Barack Obama spoke with Giunta on Thursday to inform him of the award and thank him for “his service and extraordinary bravery in battle.”
In an interview with Stars and Stripes on Friday, Giunta said he was humbled by the honor and will use his status to push for wider recognition of all troops’ sacrifices.
“I wasn’t the only one there that night,” he said. “They were all doing their jobs. As we’re talking right now, there are people deployed, fighting for their nation.”
He also added that he does not expect to be the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the current wars for long.
“I think there will be more now very soon,” he said. “There’s got to be.”
Giunta, whose story was featured in the recently published Sebastian Junger book “War,” joined the Army after hearing a radio commercial while working at a Subway sandwich shop in his hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
He has served two tours in Afghanistan, and was serving as a rifle team leader with a company from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team during combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
On Oct. 25, 2007, then-Spc. Giunta’s squad was ambushed by insurgents and two soldiers were cut off from the rest. In the initial moments of the firefight, Giunta ventured out into enemy fire to pull a comrade back to cover.
“Everything kind of slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less,” Giunta told Junger.
Giunta and two other soldiers assaulted the enemy position with grenades to move forward and link up with the separated soldiers, one of whom was Sgt. Joshua Brennan, one of Giunta’s closest friends.
When Giunta sprinted to where to he thought Brennan would be, he saw two enemy fighters dragging him down the hill. Giunta fired his M4 and ran after them, killing one insurgent and forcing the other to drop Brennan and run away.
Army officials say Giunta provided medical aid to his comrade while the rest of his squad caught up and provided security. Brennan later died, but Giunta’s actions prevented his body and equipment from falling into enemy hands.
One other soldier died that day, and five were wounded.
Giunta’s mother, Rosemary, in July told the Wisconsin State Journal, Brennan's hometown newspaper, that her son often sent home photos of himself and Brennan.
“Josh was important to him,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it any more than that without tears.”
Giunta has expressed hesitation about being recognized for what he did that day. On Friday, after word spread that he’d receive the Medal of Honor, he declined to be interviewed or accept calls of congratulations until his arms inspection was completed.
“I still have a day job,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. I’m going to continue to do that until I’m relieved or someone else takes over.”
On Friday, Junger said Giunta knew back in 2007 that his name had been forwarded as a possible Medal of Honor candidate, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of being celebrated as a hero.
“He felt like anyone in the platoon would have done the same,” Junger said. “He did it to help a friend in need. And what he did, exposing himself to enemy fire, everyone serving in the Korengal was doing that. Out there, this was simply what someone does for their brothers.”
In the book, Giunta told Junger: “I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy. I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together.”
But Junger noted that other members of the company recognized Giunta’s actions were beyond everyday duties, not only for the heroism involved but for the situation. A U.S. soldier captured by enemy forces is “the ultimate nightmare scenario,” one that soldiers there talked about on a regular basis.
“If [Brennan] was taken, it would have been a tragedy, and meant more fighting and deaths to try and get him back,” Junger said. “His actions had a ripple effect for the whole Army. But Sal did what he did for his brother, Josh.”
Brennan’s father told the Wisconsin State Journal that though his son did not survive, his family is deeply grateful for Giunta’s efforts.
“For us, it’s a very emotional thing that Sal was able to get Josh’s body back to us,” said Terry Brennan. “Who knows what the Taliban would have done to him? ...
“Not only did he save Josh, so that we were able to have him back and have an open coffin at the funeral, he really saved half of the platoon.”
No date has been set for his award ceremony. Giunta said the call from Obama was a thrilling moment.
“It was all a blur,” he said. “I’m talking to my commander in chief on the phone and squeezing my wife’s hand.”
The news comes a day after the White House announced that Staff Sgt. Robert Miller would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan in 2007. Two other servicemembers have been awarded the honor for actions in Afghanistan, and four other troops received the medal for actions in Iraq. All of them died in the line of duty.
Veterans groups have criticized the White House and Pentagon for being overly cautious with awarding the Medal of Honor in recent years, but military officials insist that the standards for the award have not changed. Nearly 250 Medals of Honor were awarded to servicemembers in the Vietnam War.
Giunta, who is recently married, remains in Italy with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He has also received a Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal and a Purple Heart.