This story has been corrected
The White House awarded three Medals of Honor last year. You probably only remember one.
The first, awarded in September, went to Vietnam War hero Richard Etchberger, killed in action in 1968. The decades between his selfless sacrifice and his family’s receipt of the award understandably muted the attention his story received.
The third, awarded in November, went to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient from the current wars.
The ceremony during which the Afghan war hero accepted his medal was one of the most heavily covered events of the year by the White House media. That was followed by dozens of national TV interviews, spots on late-night talk shows, invitations to parades and the Super Bowl, and a media blitz that Giunta himself has called overwhelming.
In between those two, the White House awarded the nation’s highest military honor to Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, a 24-year-old special operations soldier whose heroic story parallels that of Giunta. Both men were experienced warfighters on their second tour in Afghanistan. Both were ambushed in the mountains of Kunar province. Both ran directly into enemy fire to save others.
Giunta received his Medal of Honor for bounding across an open field to stop two enemy fighters from dragging away a wounded U.S. soldier. Miller received his for exposing himself to direct fire to distract dozens of enemy fighters so his fellow soldiers could fall back into safer cover.
The biggest difference in Giunta’s and Miller’s stories is that Miller’s heroics cost him his life.
His White House ceremony was a somber event that received significant attention for a day or two, then faded away. His story is far less well known than Giunta’s, at least outside of the Army community.
“I’ve had guys say it seems like since Robbie wasn’t alive, that Sal’s story trumped his, and that’s a shame,” said Maj. Bob Cusick, Miller’s team leader the day he was killed. “But I don’t see it that way. In the end, they’re both heroes. Nothing changes that.”
Cusick said he and other members of the special operations detachment who served with him that day have stayed close to each other and to Miller’s family, traveling to his Florida gravesite each year since 2008. Their last visit was particularly moving, since they got to see his Medal of Honor plaque installed on his headstone.
Soldiers who were there that day said none of the 21 U.S. or Afghan troops would have survived that attack if not for Miller’s sacrifice. Staff Sgt. Nick McGarry, a close friend who served alongside Miller for three years, said he thinks about him nearly every day, and shares his story whenever he can.
“He’s an example of what America stands for,” he said. “He was the epitome of what a Special Forces soldier is, the epitome of selfless service. He was willing to do everything and anything for those soldiers around him.”
Cusick, now an instructor at Fort Bragg, said he’s more reluctant to share his reflections on that day, because of his own lingering “what if” questions about how Miller could have been saved. But he does incorporate Miller’s heroism into his lessons.
“I tell them the big takeaway is that there are guys out there who are willing to do whatever needs to be done to help out their brothers,” he said. “There are heroes in every unit, ready to go.”
That’s the same message that Giunta has been emphasizing since he received his award.
The 26-year old Italy-based soldier announced earlier this year that he would leave the Army this summer, and attend college in Colorado. For the last few months, he’s shied away from much of the public attention initially showered on him.
But, in numerous media interviews, Giunta has made it clear that he doesn’t see his Medal of Honor as a reflection of his heroism, but instead as a symbol of the selfless service of all U.S. troops in harm’s way.
“There are so many others that are the unsung heroes of this war who will never come back to a handshake, or a hug from their families,” he told reporters following his White House award ceremony. “We have to take the time to remember them.”
Giunta’s teammates hail him as a hero for his actions, but also describe him as a reluctant spokesman because of his humility and his desire not to be placed above other soldiers.
“I think he doesn’t want to be in the limelight, but I think he sees that this country is in need of somebody to look up to right now, and he can be that inspiration for people,” said Sgt. Brett Perry, who served alongside Giunta in Afghanistan. “I think it’s for the good of the country, and I think he’s going to step up and be that person for people to look up to.”
Only two other men have received the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan, both posthumously: Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti and Navy Lt. Michael Murphy. Four others have received the honor for actions in Iraq, all of whom were killed performing their heroic acts.
Cusick said he has followed Giunta’s story closely, in part because of the similarity to Miller’s story, and in part because they received their medals just a month apart.
“I’m proud of him, like I’m proud of Robbie,” he said. “It’s not all about who gets the most attention. [Miller] is a hero. And we’re proud to talk about him any chance we get.”