Obama awards living soldier Salvatore Giunta the Medal of Honor
Under a bright Afghan moon, eight U.S. paratroopers trudged along a ridge in the Korengal Valley, unaware they were walking right into a trap. Less than 20 feet away, a band of Taliban fighters executed the ambush plan perfectly, enveloping the paratrooper squad in an explosion of bullets and grenades.
Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old Army specialist from Hiawatha, Iowa, was knocked flat by the gunfire; luckily, a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers tried to gather their senses and scramble for a shred of cover, Giunta reacted instinctively, running straight into the teeth of the ambush to aid three wounded soldiers, one by one, who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, and most of the others suffered serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for the bravery of Giunta, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
On Friday, the White House announced that President Obama will award Giunta the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor. He will become the first living recipient of the medal who has served in any war since Vietnam.
The White House said in its announcement: "His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability [to] defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands."
The White House said Obama informed Giunta, now a staff sergeant serving at a U.S. military base in Italy, of the honor in a telephone call Thursday. A ceremony will be held at a later date in Washington.
The presentation of the Medal of Honor to a living soldier for heroism in Afghanistan would be an important moment for Obama, who has struggled to build public support for the war there. Even as the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has soared to 100,000, Americans are increasingly pessimistic. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in July found 45 percent of those surveyed approved of Obama's handling of the war, down from 62 percent in July 2009.
Giunta's award comes after years of complaints from lawmakers, military officers and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that the Pentagon bureaucracy had become overly cautious in considering troops for the Medal of Honor.
Until this week, U.S. officials had awarded only six medals - all posthumously - to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, a small fraction of those given during previous conflicts. (On Thursday, the White House announced a seventh posthumous medal to Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, a Green Beret who sacrificed his life to save U.S. soldiers and Afghan security forces during a firefight on Jan. 25, 2008).
By comparison, the Medal of Honor was awarded 246 times for valor in Vietnam, 133 times for the Korean War and 464 for World War II. Defense Department officials say the criteria for the medal have not changed. But veterans groups, lawmakers and even some high-ranking military officials have questioned the explanations. The relative lack of medals for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, they say, has contributed to a lack of public appreciation of the sacrifices made by U.S. troops during the past nine years of war.
"The whole thing is very political in the end. That's one of the sad things about it," said Joseph A. Kinney, an author and Vietnam veteran who has testified before Congress about the paucity of medals. "I think they just decided they were going to avoid awards of that nature" for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Giunta, now 25, is now based in Italy with Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.