"If I'm a hero, then every man who stands around me, every woman in the military, every person who defends this country is."
The first living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for action during any war since Vietnam described the experience Wednesday as bittersweet.
"It is such a huge, huge honor," said Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, now 25, of Hiawatha, Iowa. "It's emotional, and all of this is great. But it does bring back a lot of memories of all the people I'd like to share this with who I can't. They gave everything for this country, and because of that, we're not going to be able to share this moment together."
Giunta was chosen to receive the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary valor during a mission in one of the most dangerous areas of rugged eastern Afghanistan in 2007. Giunta, who serves in the Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, will receive his medal at a White House ceremony.
Giunta told of the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, when insurgents ambushed him and his small rifle team of airborne soldiers. He said his platoon was watching over another unit from a ridgeline as it entered a village. Shortly after leaving the area, he said, they were attacked along a trail.
Giunta was knocked flat by the gunfire, but a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers scrambled for cover, Giunta reacted instinctively. He ran straight into the heart of the ambush to aid, one by one, three wounded soldiers who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the attack, and most of the others suffered serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for Giunta's bravery, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
Giunta spoke of his actions, saying, "I didn't run up to do anything heroic." He said he thought at the time, "Everybody's been shot at, and I might as well run forward. This was a situation we were put into," he said. "By no means did I do anything that others wouldn't have done."
Ironically, Giunta never planned a career in the military. When asked why he enlisted, he said he was mopping the floors late one night at the Subway sandwich shop he worked at, and heard on the radio that his local Army recruiter was giving away free t-shirts. "I guess I've always been a sucker for a free t-shirt."
Giunta enlisted in the Army in November 2003 and has deployed twice to Afghanistan. He said he hoped his award will bring more recognition for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and the sacrifices they make in being away from their families and being put in harm's way.
According to Pentagon statistics, six service members have received Medals of Honor, all posthumously, for operations since September 2001.