President Barack Obama last week presented the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH) to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. His story—and what it tells us about the men and women who protect us from our enemies—is worthy of extra reflection.
Giunta is 25 years old. He earned the nation’s highest military honor for something he did at the age of 22. The curmudgeons and cynics among us, who say that all teenagers and twenty-somethings are uninvolved, myopic, selfish slackers, should keep that in mind.
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 CMH citation. As he recalled, poetically and painfully, in a Vanity Fair interview, “There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky—a wall of bullets at every one at the same time.” The firefight was so bad that, as Obama noted, “Every member of First 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, a humble Iowan. “I try to forget a lot of this…talking about it wrenches the gut.”
Reading that makes me think of something my grandfather told me not long before he passed away. For years and years, I had tried to talk with him and my other grandfather, both decorated World War II heroes, about their service. But they always politely refused. In fact, when we would ask Grandpa Dowd what he did to earn the Silver Star his wife kept on display in the living room, he would say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” No one ever pried the secret from his humble heart.
But it was Grandpa Dowd’s passing that finally convinced Grandpa Eason to talk about the war and let me record his remembrances. Like Giunta, like nearly every combat veteran I have ever spoken to, he tried to forget. He actually worked at forgetting and blocking it out. “There are certain events, types of events that are so strong; they’re too much,” he said, trying to explain something that cannot be explained to someone who’s never fought for his life. “You just have to forget. You don’t want to think about it.”
In other words, it is a painful sacrifice—a sacrifice within a sacrifice—for men like Giunta and my grandfathers to talk about what they did, what they saw, what they heard, what they survived.
Giunta survived the Korengal Valley, a nest for Taliban fighters in northeast Afghanistan. During the ambush, as that wall of bullets slammed into Giunta’s unit, the enemy cut down his squad leader. The CMH citation tells us that Giunta “exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover and administered medical aid.” While treating his fallen brother, Giunta himself was hit and returned fire. He saw other wounded soldiers and began moving toward them, only to be forced to the ground by “a barrage of enemy fire.” Then, after Giunta reached that cluster of wounded troops, the citation tells us, “He observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately 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 later recalled in a New York Times interview. “They dropped him and when I looked at him, he was still conscious.”
The Times report gives us a glimpse of why Giunta risked everything for Brennan. Whenever the platoon went out on patrol, “Brennan was always in the lead, without protest. Even after he’d been shot in the calf two months earlier when their patrol was ambushed. He’d do anything for his friends.”
And Giunta showed that he’d do anything for Brennan.
Brennan wouldn’t survive his wounds. But because of Giunta, he died with his unit, among the heroes, with one of his brothers holding his hand and praying with him as he crossed from this life to the next.
If you wonder just how heroic Giunta was, consider this: This is the first time since the Vietnam War that a CMH has been given to a living person in the midst of an ongoing conflict.
True to form, Giunta doesn’t think of himself as anything special. “Everyone out there is brave,” Giunta says of his fellow soldiers, airmen and Marines. “I was one person being brave in a group of a whole bunch of people that were being just as brave.”
Even though Giunta never wanted to tell this story, I am thankful that it got out. We need to hear these stories. We need to know what our freedom costs. We need to understand that nine years and two months without a terror attack on American soil comes at a very high price.
Alan W. Dowd writes on national security and defense.