WASHINGTON — The soldiers who served with Sal Giunta don’t begrudge him his Medal of Honor or the fame that comes with it.
“Not at all,” said Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, one of about 30 of the Hiawatha soldier’s brothers in arms who attended the Medal of Honor ceremony Tuesday in the East Room of the White House.
Staff Sgt. Giunta, 25, the first living American service member to receive the distinction for service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has been somewhat conflicted at being singled out among the men in his unit for the honor.
“We were all there together, fighting for our lives and each other. I didn’t do anything that the others would not have done,” Giunta has said repeatedly since President Barack Obama announced the honor on Sept. 10.
Gallardo, 26, who just finished his third tour in Afghanistan a week ago, said he called his friend to congratulate him shortly after the announcement.
“He is always going to be one of my soldiers. We are going to have a brotherhood the rest of our lives,” said Gallardo, who was Giunta’s squad leader on Oct. 25, 2007, the night that then-Spc. Giunta distinguished himself when his unit came under deadly attack by a numerically superior Taliban ambush squad.
Another soldier who survived the attack, Staff Sgt. Brett Perry, 24, said the soldiers who served with Giunta feel only pride in and happiness for him.
“He’s a brother, and we are proud of him. He was in a position to do what he did, and he did it,” Perry said.
What he did, said Obama and the official accounts of the battle, was to repeatedly risk his life to save the other men in the unit.
“You charged forward through extreme enemy fire, embodying the warrior ethos that says, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade,’ ” Obama said.
Crediting Giunta with disrupting the attack and preventing the capture of a fellow soldier, Obama described him as “a low-key guy who does not seek the limelight.”
“You may believe that you don’t deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it,” the president said.
That battle, he said, was as intense and violent a firefight as any a 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.”
Giunta himself spoke briefly to reporters after the ceremony, reiterating that the deaths of two dear friends has made the experience extremely bittersweet.
“I’d give (the medal) back in a second to have my friends back with me,” he said.
As Giunta and the other seven members of his squad filed down a mountain trail, a force of at least 12 Taliban fighters flawlessly executed a close-range, L-shaped ambush that pinned the U.S. soldiers in a withering crossfire of rifle and machine gun slugs and rocket-propelled grenades.
Gallardo, who has served in combat for 42 of his 84 months in the Army, said it was by far his most harrowing experience.
The initial salvos killed the squad’s medic, Spc. Hugo Mendoza, and riddled its point man, Sgt. Josh Brennan, with at least six gunshot wounds. A bullet struck Gallardo’s helmet, rendering him “dazed and confused.”
Giunta coordinated the squad’s defense and repeatedly charged through enemy rounds, first to assist the squad leader and then to rescue Brennan, killing and wounding the two Taliban fighters who were dragging away his close personal friend.
Brennan later died of his wounds while being transported from the battlefield.
Like nearly everyone else who has met Giunta, President Obama likes him.
“I’m going to go off script here for a minute and say I really like this guy,” Obama said Tuesday in remarks preceding his presentation of the nation’s highest military honor to Giunta, who grew up in Hiawatha and graduated from Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School in 2003.
Giunta flashed the impish smile that has endeared him to friends and family for most of the past 25 years.
“That is Sal being Sal. He is a soldier, but his personality comes bubbling to the top,” said his mother, Rosemary Giunta, 52, of Hiawatha.
Dad Steven Giunta, 51, of Hiawatha, said his son’s humility and desire to share the honor with his comrades is “the real message, the right message, the true message.”
Taken from the official White House record of the president’s remarks:
"The President of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor to then Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta, United States Army.
“Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action, with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007.
“While conducting a patrol as team leader, with Company B, 2d Battalion Airborne, 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force.
“While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted toward cover and engaged the enemy. Seeing that his squad leader had fallen, and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced toward his squad leader, helped him to cover and administered medical aid.
“While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Special Giunta’s body armor and his secondary weapon. Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position.
“Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward, and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element. Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative. As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security.
“Specialist Giunta’s unwavering courage, selflessness and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy.
“Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion Airborne, 503d Infantry Regiment and the United States Army.”
Among those offering messages of congratulations are:
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa— “On an Afghan battlefield in the middle of the night, Iowa’s own Sgt. Giunta demonstrated the bravery and resolve that lie at the heart of the American spirit. In the midst of an ambush, Giunta charged directly at Taliban fighters, risking his own life to save three wounded compatriots. At a time when America is tried by war and recession, Sgt. Giunta’s story reminds us of what is best about our country. His actions speak to the mettle of our character — to our loyalty, determination and courage. ... America, and especially the state of Iowa, have a right to be very proud.”
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — “It was humbling to watch as Staff Sgt. Giunta received the Medal of Honor. While he would probably be the last to say so, (his) selfless and honorable actions are truly deserving of the highest honor given to an American service member. May God bless him and all those protecting our nation.”
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa — “The bravery and leadership that Staff Sgt. Giunta displayed in battle to save a fellow soldier and protect his platoon, and the humility he displays about his actions, are characteristics of a true hero. I would like to congratulate (him) on receiving this distinguished honor and thank him for his service to our country.”U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa — “Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta represents the absolute best our military has to offer, and all Iowans should be proud of his service. At a time when any other person might have taken cover, Staff Sgt. Giunta put himself directly in the line of fire to rescue a fellow soldier. While Staff Sgt. Giunta has described himself as ‘average’ and ‘mediocre,’ his courage, leadership and selfless action paint a more accurate picture of the man we honor today. On behalf of all First District Iowans, I want to congratulate Staff Sgt. Giunta on this tremendous honor and thank him for his extraordinary service.”