Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta recently became the first living soldier from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to be chosen to receive the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for valor. He spoke Wednesday to Pentagon reporters about the night of the attack, in which his “extraordinary bravery” in battle, according to the White House, brought him to the attention of the nation.
Still, he contends, “In this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average.
"This was a situation that we were put into,” he says via a live video feed from Italy, where he is now stationed. “I was just one brush stroke in that picture, and everyone else was one brush stroke in that picture. And what I wasn’t the first brush stroke of that picture, and it wasn’t the last brush stroke in that picture, and it wasn’t the best, it was just another brush stroke that helped, you know, complete this picture.”
Here, in his own words, is his tale.
A day like any other, at first
The day began like any other day for a US soldier in Afghanistan, says Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. His platoon was out on a multiday mission in the violent and rugged Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. It’s an area the US military has since pulled out of, after deciding that the relatively low population density didn’t merit the heavy toll it was taking on the American soldiers who were serving at the small, vulnerable outposts there.
The mission for Giunta’s 1st Platoon was to overwatch 2nd Platoon, which was in a village nestled in the valley below them. “You know,” he said, “let them know we’re here for them.”
To do that, they planned to set up on the ridge line above the village. They moved out before daybreak, hiking for two hours and arriving at their outlook post just before dawn.
The day was quiet, for the most part. The troops were picking up chatter known as ICOM, or intelligence communication, coming from nearby insurgents in conversation with one another. It was chatter along the lines of, “The enemy’s setting up. They're going to do something,” recalled Giunta. “But I mean, as a soldier in Afghanistan, that – you expect that. You’re going to hear ICOM chatter that says all sorts of crazy, off-the-wall stuff. And be it true or not, I mean, that’s what we came there to do. We – we’re waiting for them.”
So Giunta’s platoon was at its overlook post all day while 2nd Platoon spent time in the village, getting to know the elders.
As they were preparing to leave, the sun was setting over the mountains. “Night’s falling, we have Apache attack helicopters above us, flying around, you know, covering us.” The platoon was breaking down its equipment, the soldiers “you know, giving hand-and-arm signals, letting everyone know what’s about to happen, that we’re going to move back to the Korengal outpost.”
The soldiers pushed out. But between 50 to 100 meters from where they had been all day, they encountered an ambush.
'It all kind of goes blurry'
There were between 10 and 20 insurgents, Giunta told reporters. But in the midst of battle, he added, “It all kind of goes blurry.” Much of what followed, he said, was simply soldierly instinct.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that I needed to do. This is my job,” he said. “It’s something that we prepare for, because you have to train how you fight.”
Giunta’s unit was staving off the L-shaped ambush in one direction, but Giunta instinctively went forward. Early in the ambush, Giunta had been shot in what soldiers call the SAPI, or small arms protective insert, plate – in other words, his bullet-proof vest. But that shot came from a different direction.
“It wasn’t from the direction that everyone else was shooting or I was shooting,” he said. “So, you know, there’s nothing to do with [the information] at that time, but that’s something to always keep in the back of your mind. And I definitely felt that I got hit from that direction.”
Looking for Sergeant Brennan
Later, Giunta moved forward in the direction from which he had been shot, expecting to link up with a fellow soldier, Sgt. Josh Brennan. What he didn’t realize was that Brennan had been injured and was taken prisoner and being carried off by insurgents.
“I didn’t run to do anything heroic or to save – to save Brennan,” Giunta said. “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 be shooting alone.”
He saved Brennan from being carried off by two insurgents, after killing one and injuring the second. Brennan died of his injuries, but the platoon was able to carry him out, back to his family. The platoon suffered deaths and casualties that day.
When Giunta learned he would be first living soldier in either the war in Iraq or Afghanistan to become the recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, Brennan’s father called to congratulate him. “I keep in touch with Josh Brennan’s father. He’s a real stand-up guy,” Giunta said. “And he’s expressed his gratitude to me which, you know, that’s kind of a hard one to stomach, because that’s still a loss. I’m glad that we could bring Josh back, but I wish it was under different circumstances.”
After repelling the ambush, as the soldiers made their way back to their lonely Korengal outpost, “there wasn’t a whole lot of even talking afterwards,” Giunta said. “I mean, just because all this happens, after the medevac bird comes in and starts picking people up, it’s not over. You’re not out of Afghanistan. You’re not off the side of the mountain. You’re just minus some buddies. And there’s no time to talk. You still have to complete the mission. And we’re still an hour-and-a-half walk away from where we needed to be, and now we have extra equipment and less men.”
Who's a hero?
His parents, Giunta says, are proud of him. “My parents were proud, and they’ve expressed that throughout my whole life. Even, I don’t know, tying my shoes made them proud, riding my bike without my training wheels made them proud. They’re very – they’re very proud parents. And this was – this was one more thing.”
Giunta's wife is proud of him, too. That doesn’t mean, however, that she looks forward to the day he might return to war, though the Pentagon often keeps Medal of Honor recipients from deploying again. “Having your husband, your boyfriend, your son, your loved one get deployed and knowing that they’re going to be somewhere that’s dangerous, and you know that they’re without water, without electricity, it’s an awful feeling,” she said. “And you don’t want anything to happen to him, so why would you want him to go back again?”
Giunta's actions during the harrowing events of Oct. 25, 2007, have made him a national hero. But as he prepares to receive America’s highest form of gratitude for a soldier, Giunta says he doesn’t necessarily feel like one. “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,” he says. “So if you think that’s a hero – as long as you include everyone with me.”