After he was awarded the nation's highest military honor last November, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore "Sal" Giunta told Vanity Fair, "I'm just another American dude ... nothing special."
Nothing could be further from the truth for this member of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. As President Barack Obama put it, Giunta is "as humble as he is heroic."
How humble? This "nothing special American dude" from Iowa is the first living person since the Vietnam War to be decorated with a Medal of Honor in the midst of an ongoing conflict.
Giunta gained this distinction for what he did on Oct. 25, 2007, while on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Giunta's unit was ambushed by a "well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force," according to his Medal of Honor citation. As he recalled, poetically and painfully, in the Vanity Fair interview, "There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky - a wall of bullets." The firefight was so bad that, as President Obama noted, "Every member of 1st Platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear. Five were wounded. And two gave their lives: Sal's friend, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan, and the platoon medic, Spc. Hugo V. Mendoza."
Remembering that day, let alone talking about it, is hard on Giunta. "I try to forget a lot of this ... talking about it wrenches the gut."
In other words, it is a painful sacrifice - a sacrifice within a sacrifice - for men like Giunta to talk about what they did, what they saw, what they heard, what they survived.
Giunta survived Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a nest for Taliban insurgents. During the ambush, as that wall of bullets slammed into Giunta's unit, the enemy cut down his squad leader. The citation says Giunta "exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid." But Giunta himself was hit and returned fire. He saw other wounded soldiers and moved toward them, only to be forced to the ground by enemy fire. After reaching the group, he observed two insurgents carrying away a U.S. soldier. He engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other.
"I saw two of them trying to carry Brennan away, and I started shooting at them," Giunta recalled in a New York Times interview. "They dropped him, and when I looked at him, he was still conscious." But Brennan was badly wounded. As many as six rounds had ripped through his body.
The Times report gives us a glimpse of why Giunta risked everything for Brennan. Whenever the platoon went on patrol, "Brennan was always in the lead, without protest ... He'd do anything for his friends." And so would Giunta.
Brennan didn't survive his wounds. But because of Giunta, he died with his unit, among heroes, one of them holding his hand and praying with him as he crossed from this life to the next. Giunta never wanted to tell this story, but we should be thankful that it got out. We need to hear these stories, to understand that a decade without a terror attack on U.S. soil comes at a high price.
Giunta was a junior in high school on 9/11. As his mom recalled in an interview with the Army, young Sal's immediate reaction was to pick up his brother and sister from school and make sure the family was safe. "If the world falls apart," she told him that day, "I guess I can count on you."
A mother knows these things, as Sal proved a few years later in the Korengal Valley.