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

By Sharon Cohen
Sunday, January 2, 2011; A04

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.

Giunta was tight with Brennan; they trained together and traveled around Italy, where they were based. "He was athletic, smart, funny, always someone you could count on," he says. As for Mendoza, a medic: "He truly cared about other people more than he did about himself."

It was a moonlit night on Oct. 25, 2007, when enemy forces formed an L-shaped ambush around Giunta's platoon in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, a dangerous strip of land that served as a key route for al-Qaeda to move weapons, fighters and money from Pakistan.

Brennan and another soldier were hit first. When Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo ran through an open area to link up with them, he was stopped by a barrage of gunfire. Moving toward Giunta, he was struck, a round from an AK-47 dinging off his helmet and temporarily disorienting him.

Giunta jumped up, exposing himself to rockets and enemy fire, to help Gallardo. One bullet then smashed into Giunta's armor, pushing him back. Another shattered the weapon slung across his back.

He didn't stop.

Giunta and his comrades regrouped, throwing grenades and charging forward. When Giunta, who was a rifle team leader, realized that Brennan was missing, he raced ahead and saw two insurgents carrying the wounded sergeant by his arms and legs.

Giunta, alone and without cover, shot and killed one of the insurgents; the other ran away. Giunta dragged Brennan by the vest to safety. He tried to stop the bleeding, tried to comfort his friend. Someday, Giunta told the mortally wounded soldier, he'd be telling hero stories.

Gallardo says he later told Giunta: "You don't understand . . . but what you did was pretty crazy. We were outnumbered. You stopped the fight. You stopped them from taking a soldier."

"Unbelievable what he did that night," Gallardo added. "I know he's going to hate me for saying this, but he's the face of the war now."

In a White House ceremony in November, President Obama heralded Giunta's "unwavering courage, selflessness and decisive leadership."

Giunta, though, refuses to take credit for any extraordinary feats. "I did my job and I did it to the best of my ability," he says. "I did whatever everyone else did."

Giunta knew soon after the ambush that he'd been recommended for the medal, and he's had three years to prepare and reflect on his fate.

"I don't know if guilt is the right word," says his wife, "but he has a lot of questions - 'Why was it me? Why did that have to happen to Brennan and Mendoza? Why am I the one that's there and I can talk to my family and I can see my wife?'"

Giunta wanted to make sure all the guys he served with received "enough respect," Jenny Giunta says, but understood, too, that he could seize this once-in-a-lifetime moment to talk about something bigger - the sacrifices of U.S. troops and their families.

So in every appearance, he pivots from the Sal Giunta story to the bigger picture.

Americans "can live their lives unhampered by these wars because there are people who will raise their right hand and say, 'I will go to war for my country,' " he says. "They're so fortunate and they don't even know it."

Giunta's hitch ends in February; he says he hasn't decided whether he'll stay in the Army, but acknowledges he's been flooded with offers in and out of the military.

He is now part of an elite club of 87 living Medal of Honor recipients. Some have offered advice - he declines to be specific - but he vows to pass it along to the next medal recipient, which, he says, "will hopefully be soon."

He's eager to return to Italy and to become just another soldier again. "To go incognito and take a break - that'll be nice," he says.

- Associated Press

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