Medal of Honor awarded to soldier

By Karen Parrish: American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON — 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. 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.”