WASHINGTON – 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.
Army Spec. Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old 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 sustained 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 Barack Obama decided to award Giunta, now a sergeant, the Medal of Honor.
He will become the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor who has served in any war since Vietnam.
Six medals have been awarded posthumously to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small fraction of those given during previous conflicts. In comparison, 246 Medals of Honor have been granted to those who fought in Vietnam, 133 for the Korean War and 464 for World War II.
Giunta, now 25, is still serving in the Army, as a staff sergeant based in Italy with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He and his family did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Medal nominees are often counseled by military officials to maintain their silence while their cases pass through multiple levels of review, which can take years. Officials at the Pentagon and the White House declined to comment.
But details of Giunta’s act of heroism can be gleaned from interviews he gave to journalists who covered his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan.
“Everything slowed down, and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less,” Giunta told author Sebastian Junger, who gives a detailed account of the 2007 ambush in his latest book, “War.” “I did what I did because that’s what I was trained to do.”