WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2010 — A soldier designated to receive the Medal of Honor downplayed the notion that he is a hero today, insisting that his fellow servicemembers also deserve to be described that way.
“If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said. “So if you think that that’s a hero, … you include everyone with me.”
He and his wife, Jenny, both Iowa natives, spoke from Vicenza, Italy, to Pentagon reporters during a video news conference.
Giunta, 25, learned during a Sept. 9 phone call from President Barack Obama that he will become the first living servicemember to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Then a 22-year-old specialist serving as a rifle team leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, Giunta earned the nation’s highest military honor for his heroism the night of Oct. 25, 2007, when his squad encountered an insurgent ambush in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
Giunta, who has been assigned to the same company for his entire military career, said his platoon was in an overwatch position that day, which had started “like any other day in Afghanistan.” The soldiers had struck their equipment and were moving out to return to their outpost as night began to fall.
“[We] moved down the trail that we were by, that we sat at all day, probably 50 meters, maybe 100 meters, and that’s when we were engaged in the L‑shaped ambush,” he said.
According to reports, when the insurgent ambush split Giunta’s squad into two groups, he exposed himself to enemy fire to pull a squad mate back to cover. Later, while firing on the enemy and attempting to link up with the rest of his squad, Giunta said he saw two insurgents carrying away a fellow soldier, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan.
Giunta recovered his fellow soldier, shooting and killing one enemy fighter and wounding, then driving off, another. He then provided medical aid to his wounded comrade while the rest of his squad caught up and provided security. Brennan, 22, from McFarland, Wis., died the next day during surgery. A medic, Spc. Hugh Mendoza, 29, of Glendale, Ariz., also died.
Giunta said his intent during the ambush wasn’t to be a hero.
“I was out of grenades … and I had the forward momentum going,” he said. “I didn’t run up to do anything heroic or to save Brennan. Brennan, in my mind, wasn’t in trouble. I was just going to go up and I’m going to find Brennan, and we’re going to shoot together, because it’s better to shoot with a buddy than to be shooting alone.”
Giunta said he didn’t do more that night than any other soldier would have done in his place.
“This is what I’ve chosen to do with my life, … and everyone else I’m with is in the same boat,” he said. “All professionals, all conducting themselves as professionals, so there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that any of us needed to do. … Everyone just kind of played their part, followed their leaders, and conducted themselves how they were trained.”
For most of the three years since Korengal Valley, Giunta has been reluctant to discuss events he clearly remembers with pain.
Today, facing cameras and speaking with reporters, he called the honor bitter-sweet.
“It’s such a huge, huge honor, and right now the 173rd is deployed. And they are doing the same thing they did, everything that’s asked of them in Afghanistan, all over again.
That’s where a lot of my friends are right now. For me to fully accept this, I have to have everyone who’s been by me every time I needed them, and that’s really my brothers in arms.
“Some of them are out of the Army now, and some of them are in Afghanistan now … there are a lot of [other] people I’d just love to share this moment with, and I’m just not going to have the opportunity, because they’re no longer with us. They gave everything for their country,” he said.
Giunta’s parents, Steve and Rose Giunta, spoke to reporters about their son during a Sept. 11 news conference from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Rose recounted the day she spoke with her son on the phone after the ambush occurred.
“I said, ‘Can you tell me what has happened?’ And he said ‘I can’t, Mom, I’m not ready to.’ I was crying, looking out the window, [trying to] talk about something beyond the questions that are going through my head,” she said. “We stayed on the phone for probably 20 minutes, and then he had to go. But it was very difficult, and I didn’t learn anything that day — just that two men had died, and everyone had gotten hit.”
Jenny, 26, works at the post youth center, teaches yoga and takes online classes to prepare for medical studies. She said she didn’t know about the Korengal Valley incident until the following day, but remembers the call from the president a week ago.
“It was intense. It was exciting,” she said. “When the call came through I was really, really proud. I always say I’m proud to be with him, I’m proud to be his wife, and I’m proud of what he went through.”
Giunta is serving as part of the unit’s rear detachment while the brigade is again deployed to Afghanistan. His former squad leader, Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, who was with him the night of the ambush, called him from Afghanistan after the Medal of Honor award was announced, Guinta said.
“He just told me that he’s there for me, and he’s proud of me, and he’s happy for me, and this means a lot to the guys,” Giunta said. “And honestly, hearing him say that to me, someone I look up to telling me this, it means a lot to me — especially that he can say that from the guys, too, that I think are the heroes right now.
“They’re out there fighting the enemies of the United States while I’m just sitting here,” he added.
Six previous medals of honor have been awarded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were awarded posthumously to one Marine Corps, two Navy and three Army servicemembers.
The president is scheduled to present the seventh posthumous award to the family of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller in an Oct. 6 ceremony Oct. 6.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)