Under a bright Afghan moon, eight U.S. paratroopers trudged along a ridge in the Korengal Valley, unaware they were walking right into a trap. Less than 20 feet away, a band of Taliban fighters executed the ambush plan perfectly, enveloping the paratrooper squad in an explosion of bullets and grenades.
Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old Army specialist from Hiawatha, Iowa, was knocked flat by the gunfire; luckily, a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers tried to gather their senses and scramble for a shred of cover, Giunta reacted instinctively, running straight into the teeth of the ambush to aid three wounded soldiers, one by one, who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, and most of the others suffered serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for the bravery of Giunta, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
On Friday, the White House announced that President Obama will award Giunta the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor. He will become the first living recipient of the medal who has served in any war since Vietnam.
The White House said in its announcement: "His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability [to] defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands."
The White House said Obama informed Giunta, now a staff sergeant serving at a U.S. military base in Italy, of the honor in a telephone call Thursday. A ceremony will be held at a later date
Giunta, now 25, is now based in Italy with Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
The White House and Army provided a brief account of his heroism, but a more detailed narrative can be gleaned from interviews he gave to journalists who covered his unit's deployment to Afghanistan, a public account from his brigade commander and statements from his fellow soldiers, who credited him with saving their squad.
"Everything slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less," Giunta told author Sebastian Junger, who described the 2007 ambush in the book "War." "I did what I did because that's what I was trained to do."
Giunta grew up in Hiawatha, a town of 6,500 people near Cedar Rapids, and graduated from Kennedy High School. "Sal was just kind of an average kid going through high school. There's nothing that stood out other than his bravery," said Carol Sudmeier, a neighbor. "I think he really just found himself in the Army."
In November 2009, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that the Army was pushing Giunta for the Medal of Honor, although his nomination did not reach the White House until later. His mother, Rose, told the newspaper that her son was "a neat guy" and decidedly humble.
"'The medal should go to the guy on the right of me and the guy on the left of me," she recalled her son telling her and his father, Steve Giunta. "We were all in the fight."
Giunta's platoon was already weary from a rough deployment in the Korengal Valley, a remote part of Kunar province that the U.S. military abandoned recently after losing more than 40 troops in five years of grinding combat.
About a dozen Taliban fighters had concealed themselves along the ridge, waiting patiently for the Americans to come down the trail.
As gunfire and grenades erupted, the paratrooper's medic, Spec. Hugo Mendoza, was hit in the leg and bled to death. A round struck Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo in the helmet, knocking him down.
Giunta was knocked flat and rolled into a washed-out rut for cover. But then he saw Gallardo ahead of him on the trail and lunged forward, dodging enemy fire to reach the staff sergeant, who survived.
Farther ahead on the trail was Army Spec. Franklin Eckrode, seriously wounded and stuck with a jammed machine gun. Giunta and two other paratroopers jumped up and rushed to his aid, headlong into the Taliban ambush, returning fire and tossing grenades as they ran.
As the two paratroopers reached Eckrode and stopped to help, Giunta kept going. Over the ridgeline, he saw two Taliban fighters dragging away Sgt. Joshua Brennan, who had taken the brunt of the fire as the lead paratrooper on the trail. Brennan had been shot in the jaw, the back and several other places. Although badly wounded, the Taliban wanted to take him hostage.
Giunta, tossing his last grenade and emptying his rifle's magazine, killed one of the Taliban and chased off the other. He tried to keep Brennan alive until a medevac helicopter could get there.
"He was still conscious. He was breathing. He was asking for morphine. I said, 'You'll get out and tell your hero stories,' and he was like, 'I will, I will,'" Giunta later told Elizabeth Rubin, a journalist who wrote about the battle for the New York Times Magazine.
The chopper arrived and whisked Brennan away. His wounds, however, were too serious. He died several hours later.
Giunta said he kept racing ahead during the ambush, not out of a sense of honor or morality but because he instinctively knew the Taliban was trying to separate the squad members from one another. If the paratroopers had allowed that to happen, odds were they would all die.
"I didn't run through fire to save a buddy," Giunta told Junger. "I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn't run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done."
Originally Posted By P806:
Can't believe no replies.
Hell of Soldier.
I know there have been other Soldiers that are still walking and talking that deserve the medal as well.
At least one Marine who got the Navy Cross, but should have received the CMH IMHO.