This afternoon in the East Room of the White House, the President presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, U.S. Army -- the first living servicemember from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive it. "Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say I really like this guy," said the President to laughter and applause. "I think anybody -- we all just get a sense of people and who they are, and when you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about."
As the President always does, he recounted the story of the events that earned this honor, and as always it needs no editorial embellishment:
During the first of his two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Giunta was forced early on to come to terms with the loss of comrades and friends. His team leader at the time gave him a piece of advice: “You just try -- you just got to try to do everything you can when it’s your time to do it.” You’ve just got to try to do everything you can when it’s your time to do it.
Salvatore Giunta’s time came on October 25, 2007. 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. The moon was full. The light it cast was enough to travel by without using their night-vision goggles. With heavy gear on their backs, and air support overhead, they made their way single file down a rocky ridge crest, along terrain so steep that sliding was sometimes easier than walking.
They hadn’t traveled a quarter mile before the silence was shattered. It was an ambush, so close that the cracks of the guns and the whizz of the bullets were simultaneous. Tracer fire hammered the ridge at hundreds of rounds per minute -- “more,” Sal said later, “than the stars in the sky.”
The Apache gunships above saw it all, but couldn’t engage with the enemy so close to our soldiers. The next platoon heard the shooting, but were too far away to join the fight in time.
And the two lead men were hit by enemy fire and knocked down instantly. When the third was struck in the helmet and fell to the ground, Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind what little cover there was. As he did, Sal was hit twice -- one round slamming into his body armor, the other shattering a weapon slung across his back.
They were pinned down, and two wounded Americans still lay up ahead. So Sal and his comrades regrouped and counterattacked. They threw grenades, using the explosions as cover to run forward, shooting at the muzzle flashes still erupting from the trees. Then they did it again. And again. Throwing grenades, charging ahead. Finally, they reached one of their men. He’d been shot twice in the leg, but he had kept returning fire until his gun jammed.
As another soldier tended to his wounds, Sal sprinted ahead, at every step meeting relentless enemy fire with his own. He crested a hill alone, with no cover but the dust kicked up by the storm of bullets still biting into the ground. There, he saw a chilling sight: the silhouettes of two insurgents carrying the other wounded American away -- who happened to be one of Sal’s best friends. Sal never broke stride. 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. Sal had saved him from the enemy -- now he had to try to save his life. Even as bullets impacted all around him, Sal grabbed his friend by the vest and dragged him to cover. For nearly half an hour, Sal worked to stop the bleeding and help his friend breathe until the MEDEVAC arrived to lift the wounded from the ridge. American gunships worked to clear the enemy from the hills. And with the battle over, First Platoon picked up their gear and resumed their march through the valley. They continued their mission.
It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience. 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: Sal’s friend, Sergeant Joshua C. Brennan, and the platoon medic, Specialist Hugo V. Mendoza.
Now, the parents of Joshua and Hugo are here today. And I know that there are no words that, even three years later, can ease the ache in your hearts or repay the debt that America owes to you. But on behalf of a grateful nation, let me express profound thanks to your sons’ service and their sacrifice. And could the parents of Joshua and Hugo please stand briefly? (Applause.)
Now, I already mentioned I like this guy, Sal. And as I found out myself when I first spoke with him on the phone and when we met in the Oval Office today, he is a low-key guy, a humble guy, and he doesn’t seek the limelight. And he’ll tell you that he didn’t do anything special; that he was just doing his job; that any of his brothers in the unit would do the same thing. In fact, he just lived up to what his team leader instructed him to do years before: “You do everything you can.”
Staff Sergeant Giunta, repeatedly and without hesitation, you charged forward through extreme enemy fire, embodying the warrior ethos that says, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Your actions disrupted a devastating ambush before it could claim more lives. Your courage prevented the capture of an American soldier and brought that soldier back to his family. You may believe that you don’t deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it. In fact, your commander specifically said in his recommendation that you lived up to the standards of the most decorated American soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy, who famously repelled an overwhelming enemy attack by himself for one simple reason: “They were killing my friends.”
That’s why Salvatore Giunta risked his life for his fellow soldiers -- because they would risk their lives for him. That’s what fueled his bravery -- not just the urgent impulse to have their backs, but the absolute confidence that they had his. One of them, Sal has said -- of these young men that he was with, he said, “They are just as much of me as I am.” They are just as much of me as I am.
So I would ask Sal’s team, all of Battle Company who were with him that day, to please stand and be recognized as well. (Applause.) Gentlemen, thank you for your service. We’re all in your debt. And I’m proud to be your Commander-in-Chief.