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A Living Hero

From the Scrapbook

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By SCRAPBOOK
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It has been more than 30 years since the United States last conferred its highest military honor on a living soldier. But we have the privilege this week of commending U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the added pleasure of knowing he is alive and well to receive the gratitude of his compatriots.

A Living Hero

Salvatore Giunta

As a 22-year-old Specialist, Giunta was stationed in the Korengal Valley of east Afghanistan, fighting with Company B in a craggy six-mile strip that has seen more action than any other in the war on terror. He and his fellow soldiers were ambushed on October 25, 2007, which split their group into two. Insurgents wounded Sgt. Josh Brennan, also 22, and began to drag him away with them. After helping two other wounded comrades, Giunta rushed the enemy, putting himself in harm’s way to rescue Brennan. Giunta killed one insurgent and wounded the other. 

“I started shooting,” Giunta told the New York Times Magazine in 2008. “I emptied that magazine. They dropped Brennan.” Brennan later died of his wounds despite Giunta’s best triage efforts, administered under fire until a Medevac came to rescue Brennan. 

The unassuming Iowan soldier, in the style of true heroes, is a somewhat reluctant one, according to friends and family. President Barack Obama phoned Giunta at his base in Italy Thursday to inform him of the honor. Giunta called his parents with the same misgivings he’s had ever since his chain of command nominated him for the honor.

“He mentions every other soldier would have done the same thing. It kind of rocks his world that he’s being awarded the Medal of Honor for something each and every one of them would have done. He’s very aware of that,” his father told NPR.

Giunta’s Medal of Honor is also the culmination of a years-long campaign by veterans, living Medal of Honor recipients, and congressmen to once again confer the honor on a living warrior. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s living membership has dwindled to 87, with news of World War II recipients passing away the most frequently added items to its website. California congressman Duncan Hunter, himself a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, sent a letter to the president in 2009, asking for a review of the selection process saying, “I am concerned that either knowingly or inadvertently, the Medal of Honor awards process is becoming biased to only acts of valor that result in the death of the service member.”

During Vietnam and World War II, a significant percentage of Medals of Honor were awarded to living heroes. For Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall number of Medals of Honor has been very low, and all of them have been posthumous until now.

We have at times bemoaned the dearth of well-known war heroes in our current conflicts, and the unwillingness of the media to make them household names, as they’ve been in the past. Perhaps Sal Giunta will change that. His company’s exploits in the Korengal Valley are already the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, Restrepo.

As Iraq veteran and author David Bellavia put it in a tribute, “Giunta represents those that risk their forever for our today. .  .  . Congratulations to President Obama, Secretary Gates and most of all, SSG Giunta’s chain of command for recognizing not only the actions of a genuine hero, but the importance for these living heroes to walk amongst us displaying all that it is to sacrifice for freedom.”

A Plaudit Too Far

One of the sillier conventions of political Washington is the Kennedy Center Honors, in which the usual official suspects over at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts choose five performers to be recognized for (in awards terminology) lifetime achievement. This yields a few weeks of fawning coverage in the press, a glittery reception at the White House, and a gala concert at the Kennedy Center where the five receive their honors and look suitably self-satisfied. The concert is taped and broadcast on PBS around Christmastime. 

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