Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta’s decision to risk his life so others could live placed him "squarely among the most magnificent of those worthy of this honor," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Nov. 17 as the nation’s first living Medal of Honor recipient in 40 years was inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
Giunta, then a specialist, was a 22-year-old rifle team leader serving in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, when insurgents attacked his squad in October 2007.
When approaching insurgents formed an L-shaped ambush, splitting Giunta’s squad into two groups, he braved enemy fire to pull a squad member back to cover.
President Barack Obama awarded Giunta the Medal of Honor Nov. 16 in a White House ceremony.
"The Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor, recognizes those who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry, intrepidity at risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty," Gates said at the Hall of Heroes ceremony.
Adding, "All too often, those who meet that high standard do so at the cost of their lives – this has been especially true of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it is indeed an occasion of great thankfulness and celebration when we can welcome one of these warriors home."
Giunta saved a second soldier while trying to connect with the other half of his squad. He saw two insurgents carrying off the second squad member and recovered him while shooting and killing one enemy and wounding and driving off others.
Giunta administered medical aid to the wounded soldier, but in spite of his efforts, the soldier died the next day during surgery.
"While we can never fail or forget to honor the fallen," Gates said, "we also need living heroes – heroes who overcame every fear, every obstacle, to inspire, to teach and ennoble us by what they have done. Heroes like Sal Giunta.
"I say this because we’re in the tenth year of a conflict fought on distant shores, waged by the few for the sake of the many," Gates continued. "A complex, and at times, a confusing struggle against enemies that lurk among the innocent, it is a conflict that lacks the traditional battle lines, clash of armies and clear-cut definition associated in the public mind with major wars."
Yet the fundamental nature of war, Gates added, and the role of individual selflessness, initiative and courage do not change.
Gates told Giunta he saw a television interview this week in which Giunta called himself "just a middleman ... representing all those who have served and sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"Sergeant, your modesty and your humility, together with valor, truly sets you apart," Gates said. "Though you call yourself ‘mediocre,’ you are clearly exceptional, even among the fellow warriors you so graciously extolled."
More importantly, Gates told Giunta, "You are a living example, a reminder to America that there are heroes, modern heroes, who live and walk among us – heroes who are still fighting and dying to protect us every day.
"Your valor and courage for your comrades and the entire generation of warriors you so ably represent offers enduring hope for the future of our country," Gates said.
(Editor’s note: This story is by Terri Moon Cronk, American Forces Press Service. The photo is by Cherie Cullen.)