For Medal of Honor recipient, retelling his story isn't easy

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By Sharon Cohen
Sunday, January 2, 2011

CHICAGO - It was years in the making, so Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta had time to talk with his wife about the "what if" question. He'd been recommended for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. If chosen, his name would be in headlines. His face in the spotlight. He'd be a celebrity.

And again and again, he'd have to tell strangers the harrowing story of a deadly ambush in Afghanistan.

"He was worried," says Giunta's wife, Jenny. "He didn't know how he was going to be able to talk to people about it. He couldn't even talk to me. He didn't even talk to his parents about it. How was he going to talk to the world about it? How was he going to be okay with telling his story?"

Giunta was awarded the medal. And, as expected, he's become a celebrity with all the trappings: A ceremony at the White House. Praise from the president. Appearances on the "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Colbert Report." Invitations galore. And calls, too, for him to tell his story.

Yet in a "look at me" world, Giunta has remained decidedly humble. The 25-year-old soldier from Hiawatha, Iowa - the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in any war since Vietnam - would have you believe there's nothing special about braving rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and a wall of bullets to help one comrade, then free another from the clutches of the Taliban.

"I'm not a very smart guy," he recently told a crowd, many of them vets, gathered to see him at an armory outside of Chicago. "I haven't guided myself to the position I'm in. I've been mentored. I've been tutored. I've been taught along the way. I've been told to follow. I've been told to lead."

Everywhere he goes, on publicity tours organized by the Army, Giunta portrays himself as an everyman, not a Superman. That hasn't stopped football and hockey fans from giving him standing ovations, crowds from lining up for photos, strangers from embracing him.

"This isn't me," Giunta said in an interview. "As far as getting used to it, I don't think I ever will."

Since he received the medal in mid-November, Giunta has come to realize that instant fame brings opportunities, pressures and surreal moments. His choice of lunch - an Italian beef sandwich - now turns up in a gossip column. He rubs shoulders with people he once watched on TV, people like basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

He's a star attraction, the reason crowds come out on a bitter winter morning, the reason he's sitting before a microphone on an afternoon radio show. It's his story they still want to hear - and telling it doesn't get any easier.

"I've never seen anyone else asked, 'What was the worst day in your life? And let's break it down piece by piece, and please go into detail,' " he says. "For some reason, they continually ask me every single day and multiple times a day. Of course it's difficult. I lost two very good friends that day. They mean absolutely everything [to me], and people brush by their names. And they keep saying, 'Giunta. Staff Sergeant Giunta.' That doesn't feel right."

The dead were Sgt. Josh Brennan and Spec. Hugo Mendoza. Both were on the mission with Giunta as part of Company B, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment.

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© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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