VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A decade ago, Sal Giunta was an undistinguished high school student growing up in eastern Iowa — "a regular kid, maybe a little on the hyper side," in his own words.
Today, at 27, he is still trying to get his head around being the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, since the Vietnam War.
"For me to stand up here and talk to you, I feel out of place," Giunta told an audience of more than 300 Tuesday at Regent University. "For me to be the one recognized seems inappropriate. There are so many people doing such great stuff."
Giunta had never given any thought to military service until the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, galvanized him into action. "I was enraged," he said. Soon after graduation, he signed up for the Army's airborne infantry and became a gung-ho soldier.
When he got orders for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2005, "I had never been more excited about anything in my entire life," he said.
"But when I got to Afghanistan, my perspective changed. War was not what I anticipated.... There's a very heavy cost."
Early in that deployment, an improvised bomb killed four of the 35 soldiers in Giunta's unit. "I started feeling bad for myself," he said, until an inspirational team leader snapped him out of his funk.
It's not about the individual, his comrade told him, it's about the collective effort: "I'll look out for you, you'll look out for me and, regardless of what happens to any of us, the sun will rise again tomorrow. What we are doing here is valuable to our service and to our country."
On his second Afghanistan tour in 2007, Giunta was a rifle team leader in the rugged Korengal Valley. On Oct. 25, his unit was ambushed by 10 to 20 insurgents.
"It seemed like the world was exploding," he said. "Trees were blowing up over our heads."
During the fusillade, Giunta exposed himself to enemy fire so he could pull a comrade back to cover. Later, while trying to link up with the rest of his squad, he saw two insurgents carrying a wounded American away. He opened fire, killing one insurgent and wounding the other, and provided medical aid to the American while the rest of his squad caught up.
"I did what we do," he said. "I eliminated the threat."
When it was over, two men in the 18-man unit — including the wounded soldier Giunta rescued — were dead, and five were seriously wounded.
In November 2010, Giunta was a staff sergeant assigned to a rear detachment when a colonel from the Pentagon called and ordered him to be ready to take a call from Washington the next day. "I couldn't think of what I did wrong," he said.
When he took the call, it was President Barack Obama informing him of the impending award.
Giunta left the Army in 2011 and has written a book, "Living with Honor," about his time in combat. He begins a nationwide book tour next month.
After his talk at the Regent Executive Leadership Series luncheon, someone asked him what he has found hardest about civilian life.
"The most difficult thing for me is being alone," he said — no longer part of a close-knit team.
"I'm missing that camaraderie."