WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2010 — President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor today to the first living servicemember to receive the distinction for service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
During a White House ceremony, the commander in chief of what he called “the finest military that the world has ever known” awarded the medal to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta for heroic action in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley on Oct. 25, 2007.
“Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Medal of Honor has been awarded nine times for conspicuous gallantry in an ongoing or recent conflict. Sadly, our nation has been unable to present this decoration to the recipients themselves, because each gave his life, his last full measure of devotion, for his country,” Obama said.
“Today, therefore, marks the first time in nearly 40 years that the recipient of the Medal of Honor for an ongoing conflict has been able to come to the White House and accept this recognition in person,” the president said.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military award a servicemember can receive for valor in action against a combatant force. Giunta’s Medal of Honor is the eighth awarded to troops serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The previous seven awards all have been posthumous.
“It is my privilege to present our nation’s highest military decoration … to a soldier as humble as he is heroic,” the president said. “I’m going to go off script here for a second and just say, ‘I really like this guy.’ ”
Cheers and applause followed.
“When you meet Sal and you meet his family,” Obama continued, “you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about. So this is a joyous occasion for me.” During Giunta’s first of two tours in Afghanistan, his team leader gave him a piece of advice, Obama said: “You’ve just got to try to do everything you can when it’s your time to do it.”
The president then described the events that led to today’s medal presentation.
“He was a specialist then, just 22 years old. Sal and his platoon were several days into a mission in the Korengal Valley, the most dangerous valley in northeast Afghanistan,” Obama said.
Giunta was serving as a rifle team leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. That October evening, his squad ran into an insurgent ambush.
The platoon’s soldiers had spent the day in an overwatch position and were heading back to their base camp. Giunta’s squad moved out first and came under enemy fire. “It was an ambush so close that the cracks of the guns and the whiz of the bullets were simultaneous,” the president said. “The Apache gunships overhead saw it all, but couldn’t engage with the enemy so close to our soldiers.”
When the ambush split Giunta’s squad into two groups, he exposed himself to enemy fire to pull a squad mate back to cover. Later, while returning fire and attempting to link up with the rest of his squad, Giunta saw two insurgents carrying away a wounded fellow soldier, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan.
“Sal never broke stride,” Obama said. “He leapt forward, he took aim, he killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off. Sal found his friend alive, but badly wounded. He had saved him from the enemy. Now he had to try to save his life.”
Giunta 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. Hugo V. Mendoza, 29, of Glendale, Ariz., also died.
“It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience,” the president said. “By the time it was finished, every member of first platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear. Five were wounded, and two gave their lives.”
Obama said Giunta is a “low-key guy” who doesn’t seek the limelight.
“Your actions disrupted a devastating ambush before it could claim more lives,” the president said to Giunta. “Your courage prevented the capture of an American soldier and brought that soldier back to his family. You may believe you don’t deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it.”
Obama asked members of Giunta’s team from that day who were present at the ceremony to stand and be recognized.
“Gentlemen, thank you for your service,” Obama said. “We’re all in your debt, and I’m proud to be your commander in chief.”
America’s highly trained and battle-hardened servicemembers all have one thing in common, Obama said: they volunteer.
“In an era when it’s never been more tempting to chase personal ambition or narrow self-interest, they chose the opposite,” he said. “For the better part of a decade, they have endured tour after tour in distant and difficult places. They have protected us from danger. They have given others the opportunity to earn a better and more secure life.” Obama quoted something Giunta said shortly after he learned he would receive the Medal of Honor.
“ ‘If I’m a hero,’ Sal has said, ‘Then every man who stands around me, every woman in the military, every person who defends this country is.’ And he’s right,” the president said. “This medal today is a testament to his uncommon valor, but also to the parents and the community that raised him, the military that trained him, and all the men and women who served by his side.”
Today’s servicemembers represent a small fraction of the nation’s population, Obama said.
“But they and the families who await their safe return carry far more than their fair share of our burden. They do it in hopes that our children and grandchildren won’t have to,” he said. “They are the very best part of us. … They are why our banner still waves, our founding principles still shine. They are why our country, the United States of America, still stands as a force for good all over the world.”
The president stood beside the staff sergeant as the Medal of Honor citation was read, and then fastened the distinctive blue ribbon suspending the medal around Giunta’s neck.
Giunta stood at attention as the crowd applauded and cheered. Finally, when the clapping continued without abating, the young man smiled.
Giunta was born Jan. 21, 1985, in Clinton, Iowa, and grew up in Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, Iowa. His parents, Steven and Rosemary Giunta, live in Hiawatha. He has a younger brother, Mario, and a younger sister, Katie.
Giunta enlisted in the Army in November 2003, and completed basic and infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga. He married Jennifer Lynn Mueller, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, in October 2009.
Giunta completed two combat tours in Afghanistan with the 173rd, from March 2005 to March 2006 and from May 2007 to August 2008. He currently is stationed at the unit’s home base near Vicenza, Italy, while the brigade is once more deployed to Afghanistan.
Giunta’s wife, parents and siblings accompanied him to the White House for today’s medal presentation.
Also attending today’s ceremony were First Lady Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, members of Congress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Army Secretary John M. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.
Here is the text of Giunta’s Medal of Honor citation:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor to Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta, United States Army. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007.
While conducting a patrol as team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force. While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted towards cover and engaged the enemy.
Seeing that his squad leader had fallen and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid. While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Specialist Giunta’s body armor and his secondary weapon.
Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position.
Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element.
Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative. As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security.
Specialist Giunta’s unwavering courage, selflessness, and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy. Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, and the United States Army.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)