At Pentagon, Medal of Honor recipient inducted into Hall of Heroes

At a Pentagon ceremony Wednesday, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, freshly awarded the Medal of Honor for valor, joined a select group of service members inducted into the Hall of Heroes.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama applauds after presenting the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who rescued two members of his squad in October 2007 while fighting in the war in Afghanistan, on Nov. 16, at the White House in Washington.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was inducted Wednesday into what military officials refer to as the Pentagon’s most sacred place: its Hall of Heroes.

With that ceremony, Giunta joins an intimate fraternity and will for the rest of his life be accorded privileges that America reserves for only its most revered service members.

It was in a packed Pentagon auditorium that top officers from throughout the military gathered Wednesday to pay tribute to the only living Medal of Honor recipient in a decade's-worth of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the 389 Medals of Honor awarded since World War II, only about one-third of the recipients have been able to receive them in person. Giunta received the award from President Obama Tuesday.

While it is crucial to remember the fallen, the nation also needs living heroes, says Defense Secretary Robert Gates, quoting the historian to the Roman legion: “In valor there is hope.”

Secretary Gates acknowledged, too, that the Medal of Honor places a heavy burden on its recepients by making them "a symbol of this hope.”

It was an emotional ceremony, with soldiers standing at attention discreetly wiping away tears. Gen. George Casey made a couple of well-received jokes in a bid to lighten things up.

He observed that Giunta’s family was close and tight-knit, “and that’s just what you have to be to get through Pentagon security,” a reference to the tedious process that awaits visitors who must pass through the building’s metal detectors and sensor-activated gates.

Casey also noted that Giunta, who has been lauded for his modesty in countless interviews, has also fared far better than he on the evening news, a reference to Casey’s time commanding the war in Iraq during its nadir.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh told the story of how Giunta enlisted after hearing an ad on a local radio station promising free T-shirts for those who came to speak with Army recruiters. “This is why we spend millions on marketing,” McHugh said. He promised Giunta and his wife free T-shirts should Giunta decide to stay in the military.

Even if he doesn’t, as a Medal of Honor recipient Giunta will spend a great deal of time on military posts for the rest of his life, as an honored guest at ceremonies and with a complimentary membership to any military club he cares to join. He will be able to wear his uniform even after he leaves the service, and he will have a reserved seat on Inauguration Day for as long as he lives. Any children he has will be guaranteed a spot at any of the nation’s service academies.

Giunta’s wife of 1 year, 10 days was by his side during the induction ceremony, as were his family and fellow soldiers from his platoon in Afghanistan, where his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” earned him the medal.

The family of the soldiers in his unit who were killed during his tour were there, too.

It was to them – and to all of the families of all troops who have lost their lives throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – that Giunta spoke on Wednesday.

The ceremony, he said, was bittersweet. “We lost our sons, our brothers,” he said. “I haven’t given anything compared to those who have given everything.”

To all those who have been lost and to their families, he said, “Thank you.”

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