DOD News Briefing with Staff Sgt. Giunta and Jenny Giunta via Teleconference from Italy
MR. DOUGLAS B. WILSON: Afternoon. I’m Doug Wilson. I’m the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. It’s my honor to bring to you Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Staff Sergeant Giunta and his wife Jenny are joining us from Vicenza, live. Welcome.
And, as you know, the White House announced recently that President Obama will present Staff Sergeant Giunta our nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for his courage and his leadership in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.
Staff Sergeant Giunta and Jenny, thank you very much for being available to us. And I also, before turning this over to questions and to Colonel Dave Lapan, I just wanted to say on behalf of all of us here at the Pentagon how proud we are of you and how proud we are of your colleagues and comrades, whom I know you have honored in your comments, and I just wanted to say that this is an honor for me to be able to introduce you.
So I’ll turn this over to Dave Lapan and we’ll begin the questions.
COL. DAVID LAPAN: Okay. Staff Sergeant Giunta, it’s Colonel Lapan here at the Pentagon. How do you hear me?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I hear you pretty good, sir.
COL. LAPAN: We’ve got you here. As I understand, you don’t have a statement to make. You want to just jump into questions?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I think that works best, sir. Roger.
COL. LAPAN: Okay.
Q Sergeant, Larry Shaughnessy from CNN. Can you tell us about how that -- how that patrol that the events came out of -- how it began, what time of day it was? What kind of equipment and weapons were you carrying? And lead us up to the point where the Taliban attacked your unit.
SSGT. GIUNTA: The day was like any other day in Afghanistan. I mean, we’re all soldiers. We’re all out on a mission. This mission in particular was a multi-day mission. It was Operation Rock Avalanche. And it had been going on four days prior to the particular night in question of the 25th.
It was the end of October. The end of October in Afghanistan is -- it’s cold in the mornings, it’s cold at night, it gets warm in the daytime.
Our particular piece of the mission that day was to overwatch the -- our group of 1st Platoon was to overwatch 2nd Platoon, who was down in the village below us, as they entered the village and kind of engaged the elders and, you know, let them know we’re there for them.
And to do that safely, we set up on the ridge line above the village to provide security for them down in the village and then also provide security for ourselves on the back side.
So we just did a 360.
We ended up moving out at just before daybreak from the Korengal outpost. And it was only maybe a two-hour walk to get to our setup location, so we set up before dawn. And we set up in our 360-degree perimeter and emplaced Claymores. We brought SMAW-D’s [shoulder launched multipurpose assault weapon-disposable], basic infantry, platoon weapons, so a SAW [squad automatic weapon] for every -- one SAW gunner for every four people; one, two, or three gunner for every four people; two and four rifle gunners; team leaders; squad leaders; radios, lots of radios, so we can all stay in contact with each other.
The day, for the most part, was quiet. They were picking up ICOM [intelligence communication] chatter about: they’re setting up, the enemy’s setting up, they’re going to -- they’re going to do something. But I mean, as a soldier in Afghanistan, that -- you expect that. You’re going to hear ICOM chatter that says all sorts of crazy, off-the-wall stuff. And be it true or not, I mean, that’s what we came there to do. We -- we’re waiting for them. We’re trying to engage them. We’re trying to engage the populace. And part of that is, you know, you could get shot at, they could set upon you. But it’s not going to change the mission.
So we sat there all day, and 2nd Platoon engaged the villagers. They came out of the village. We’re getting prepared to exfil [exfiltrate]. The sun’s just going over the mountains; night’s falling; we have Apache attack helicopters above us, flying around, you know, covering us, so they’re covering the ground. We’re preparing to move out, so we’re breaking down. We’re bringing in our Claymores we have set up. We’re, you know, giving hand-and-arm signals, letting everyone know what’s about to happen, that we’re going to move back to the Korengal outpost.
And then there’s always a specific order of movement that we’re moving in. So Sergeant [Joshua] Brennan took Alpha team, first squad, and he moved out first, followed by his SAW gunner, who at the time was Specialist [Franklin] Eckrode; squad leader was Sergeant [Erick] Gallardo; myself; Specialist [Kaleb] Casey was my SAW gunner, and then Specialist [Garrett] Clary was my 203 gunner; followed then by a portion of the headquarters element -- so the platoon leader; the platoon medic; the RTO [radio-telephone operator], the platoon leader’s radio guy; and fire -- forward-fire observers, so someone who can call in, you know, mortars if need be or direct the helicopters that are flying around so we have those assets available to us and the troops on the ground can call them in.
Followed -- following the headquarters element was a team from weapons squad, which is the 240 Bravo, consisting of a three-man team, tripods, extra rounds. And after them, we had an attachment of scouts. So we had a couple of different weapons systems with them that would help over watch, have a little more magnification on the weapons and just add a little more people to the patrol, seeing as how we were kind of pushing out into an area we didn’t really know what was happening, where it’s best to go prepared.
After we pushed out, we pushed out in that order of movement and moved down the trail that we were by, that we sat at all day, probably 50 meters, maybe 100 meters. And that’s when we were engaged in the L-shaped ambush.
Q (Off mike) were you personally carrying?
SSGT. GIUNTA: Say again, sir? I didn’t hear you.
Q And what kind of weapons were you carrying yourself?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I had -- I was Bravo team leader, so I had my M4 [Colt M4 carbine] and then I also had a SMAW-D across my back, which is a rocket launcher. It breaks down like the AT4 [shoulder fired, disposable anti-tank rocket launcher], just gets a little smaller for convenience of carry. And I had two claymores in my rucksack. Because of our mission that day, we set up so if they -- if the enemy ran into our perimeter, we could blow claymores and really -- really stick it to them.
But we didn’t use anything all day. I mean, we sat there in relative quietness just kind of watching the surrounding terrain. So I had all -- everything I left in the morning with, I had that night.
COL. LAPAN: Luis.
Q Sergeant, it’s Luis Martinez with ABC News. Can I ask you and your wife what the last week has been like for you, since the news came out? And we’ve seen many reports of your reactions to President Obama, his call to both of you. Can you describe once again what that was like?
MRS. GIUNTA: For me, the call from the president? I had a little bit of warning from Sal that it was going to happen, so I was at his office.
And, I mean, it was intense. It was exciting. When the call came through, I was really, really proud. I was proud to know Sal and proud to be with him and proud to be his wife, and proud of what he went through.
And I was emotional, of course. There was a lot of emotions running through me; of course good emotions, and sad emotions for those that were lost. But it was also -- it was very intense, a very intense moment.
And the past week has also been exciting, intense. It’s been busy, busier usual, of course. But it’s for all good things.
Q (Off mike) ask you for your reactions to last week as well?
SSGT. GIUNTA: (Pause.) Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.
My -- this last week has been definitely a wild and crazy ride. It’s been exciting, it’s been -- I’m a regular line soldier, so this is a new world, sitting out here under these lights in the field with these cameras pointed on us, talking with a little, secret earpiece. And it’s definitely interesting and exciting.
COL. LAPAN: Dana.
Q Dana Hedgpeth at the Washington Post. Having had some time to reflect, does it seem a bit surreal, or what kind of emotions can you describe from the time -- since the time of the ambush versus now you’re sitting there with lights on you, an earpiece, with your wife? Have you been sleeping much? Have you been just running, still, on adrenaline? What’s the emotions you’ve been going through, sir?
SSGT. GIUNTA: This -- this whole process has been, from the time I actually knew that they were going to put me in for the Medal of Honor to now, it’s almost been three years now. So that’s not something that I really thought about until this last week.
As far as emotions after finding out about -- that I’m going to receive the Medal of Honor, it’s very -- it’s bittersweet, because it’s such a huge, huge honor, and right now the 173rd’s deployed, and they are doing the same thing they did, everything that’s asked for them, in Afghanistan, all over again.
And that’s where a lot of my friends are right now.
So for me to fully, you know, accept this, I have to have everyone who’s been by me every time I needed them, and that’s really my brothers in arms. And some of then are out of the Army now and some of them are in Afghanistan now.
And it -- it’s emotional and it’s great. All of this is great. But it does bring back then, you know, a lot of -- a lot of memories of all the people that I would love to share this moment with, and I’m just not going to have that opportunity because they’re no longer with us, and they gave everything for their country. And in doing that, we’re not going to be able to enjoy this together.
Q Hello. I’m Allen Abel from the National Post. I was with the president at that appearance here in Virginia on Monday in a suburban backyard. For an hour and a half he took questions from the residents of this neighborhood. Not once in those 90 minutes was the war with Afghanistan, was Iraq, was the military ever mentioned, either by the president or any of about 20 people who asked him questions. How do each of you view this apparent lack of interest or weariness with what’s happening there?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I think, for a lack of interest or weariness for all the people who didn’t speak about it or think about it, I think there’s millions more Americans that really do understand what the American soldier is going through. And I’m not doing it right now. I’m still a soldier. But at the same time, I’m proud, I’m so proud to say I’m with the 173rd. I am -- I’m stoked that I can say I’m with the Rock.
Battle hard. I’m proud right now being on rear detachment team, and I’m serving those dudes, and they’re out there doing it again. And if other people don’t know, well, hopefully they’ll listen to this and they’ll remember that there’s out -- there’s men and women out there every single day giving everything for their country.
Q Do you have an answer or reaction to that?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you again.
Q I was asking Jenny the same question, how she viewed this apparent or possible disinterest or lack of interest on the part of many people here.
MRS. GIUNTA: I feel the same way that Sal does. I mean, it goes to show -- just while Sal was deployed and I would, you know, call family, call friends, talk to people, just hearing those that were aware of things and those that weren’t aware of things, it’s just kind of how sometimes it happens.
And you just have to keep thinking that there’s more people out there that are aware of it than maybe you’re talking to. You just have to keep that in mind, and that hopefully people that are aware of it will spread the awareness, and that hopefully this award will spread the awareness as well to those people.
COL. LAPAN: Courtney.
Q Hi, Staff Sergeant. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I wanted to bring you back to your answer to Dana’s question, when you mentioned that this award really is bittersweet to you. Have you spoken to any of the other soldiers who were with you that night? And then -- and then I -- do you still keep in touch with the family members of any of the soldiers, your friends who were lost that night? Have any of them had any reaction, reached out to you since the announcement last week offering any feelings about your honor?
SSGT. GIUNTA: I talked with my squad leader at the time who was there that night, Staff Sergeant Gallardo. And he gave me a call from Afghanistan -- one of the soldiers that’s out there just doing it again. And he just told me that he’s there for me and he’s proud of me and he’s happy, he’s happy for me, and this means a lot to the guys.
And honestly, that -- hearing him say that to me, someone I look up to telling me this, it means a lot to me; and especially that he can say that from the guys, too, that I -- I think, you know, are the heroes right now. They’re out there fighting enemies of the United States, while I’m just sitting here.
The -- as far as bittersweet and speaking -- speaking to the families of the soldiers that were lost that night, I keep in touch with Josh Brennan’s father. He’s a -- he’s a real stand-up guy. I like -- I like Mike a lot. We talk here and there, off and on. And he’s -- he’s expressed his gratitude to me -- which, you know, that’s kind of a hard one to stomach, because that’s still a loss. I -- I’m glad that we could bring Josh back, but I wish it was under different circumstances.
We actually -- we got married -- Jenny and I got married last November, and we just had a -- I guess a -- our wedding party.
MRS. GIUNTA: Reception.
SSGT. GIUNTA: Reception. (Laughs.) We just had a reception back in Iowa just this summer, so the family could come, because there was, you know, a lot of people that couldn’t make it to the wedding. And I asked Mike to come down, and he came down with his brother, and it -- it’s just always good to see him.
COL. LAPAN: Anna.
Q This is Anna Mulrine, with the Christian Science Monitor.
And I just wanted to follow up a little bit on Courtney’s question. And there have been so few Medals of Honor awarded for the war in Afghanistan. And a lot of what we hear at -- here at the Pentagon is that it’s a different kind of war; there’s more technology versus, say, World War II, for example.
And I just wanted to get your take on that. You know, I mean, how does it feel to be the only living recipient [sic - only living recipient of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq] of such a tremendous honor? And I was also curious, too, just what the reaction has been among your fellow soldiers there in Italy.
SSGT. GIUNTA: Kind of -- kind of what I was going back -- or going back to what I was saying before, in this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average. This was a situation that we were put into. And by no means did I do anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done in that situation.
Looking at it as, like, a picture, I was just one brush stroke in that picture, and everyone else was one brush stroke in that picture. And what I did wasn’t the first brush stroke of the picture, and it wasn’t the last brush stroke in the picture, and it wasn’t the best; it was just another brush stroke that helped, you know, complete this picture or this moment in time.
And the guys here are proud of me. It means a lot. This is -- this is a huge, huge honor. But they know that and I know that, and I hope that I can convey, you know, to the world how great the average soldier is. Because, I mean, you’re sitting here talking to me, so you must think that. And I think that about them. And I think -- I think it’s -- it means a lot to say that.
And hopefully, you know, more people start thinking about Afghanistan or Iraq or the men and women that are out there.
Regardless of what they’re doing, they are away from their families and their loved ones, in a different country, trying to improve the country -- whether it be handing out stuff, or helping them learn new trades or different things that can pull them away from their troubled past that they’ve been having. The American soldier has been everything that the American people have asked for, and it’s important to remember that.
Q If we could go back to that night on October 25th -- this is Larry from CNN again -- you stopped when you talked about you’d gone about a hundred meters and that’s when the enemy engaged you. Can you talk now about that engagement? How did it play out? What kind of -- how many enemy were you facing? What were -- what -- and what weapons were they using against you?
And how it is -- from what I understand, it was over in a matter of minutes. Did you make a lot of conscious decisions, or were you reacting subconsciously to the point where it was over with and the medevac helicopter was coming in?
SSGT. GIUNTA: When the ambush happened, I would say there’s probably -- I don’t know -- 10 to 20 people. It’s kind of -- it all kind of goes blurry. And I think that kind of leads into your second part of -- there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking. There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that I needed to do. This is my job. This is my profession, and I don’t -- I don’t have anything else on the side. This is what I’ve chose to do with my life for the past, you know, six years now. And everyone else I’m with is in the same boat: all professionals, all conducting themselves as professionals. So there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that any of us needed to do.
It’s something we train and it’s something that we prepare for, because you have to train how you fight.
And this is something everyone was aware that could happen. So everyone just kind of played their part, followed their leaders and conducted themselves how they were trained. So, you know, you don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, but at the end, I mean, everyone played their role completely.
And we didn’t really talk about it. There was no time. I mean, just because all this happens, after the medevac bird comes in and starts picking people up, it’s not over. You’re not out of Afghanistan. You’re not off the side of the mountain. You’re just minus some buddies. And there’s no time to talk. You still have to complete the mission. And we’re still an hour and a half walk away from where we needed to be, and now we have extra equipment and less men.
So there wasn’t a whole lot of even talking afterwards. Everyone knew -- or had an idea of what had happened, but no one really knew, because -- even when I speak about this, I don’t know what the whole line was doing. I only know what, you know, directly the six people that I was actively with, you know, roughly what they were doing, and they only know what I was doing, because everything else was behind us. We were all just playing our piece. And that’s part of training.
Q To follow up, you’ve made the point a couple times that you’re not doing -- you didn’t do anything any other soldier wouldn’t have done. But there were other soldiers there, and something told you, when you were being shot at by the Taliban from your left, that the real threat was ahead. And you went forward towards Eckrode, towards Sergeant Brennan. And basically, you were going towards where some of the firing from the Taliban was coming from, while other soldiers who were involved in the fight were focused on the enemy attack from your left.
At what point did you -- did you determine that the best thing that you could do was to go forward on the trail and catch up with Eckrode and Brennan as opposed to turning to your left and facing the immediate threat of a large group of Taliban with a lot of heavy weaponry?
SSGT. GIUNTA: Well, sir, I wasn’t alone, because Staff Sergeant Gallardo, who’s the squad leader, and I was the team leader, he was trying to push forward. And I did have kind of a -- well, before we started pushing forward, I was -- I was hit in the -- in the SAPI [small arms protective inserts] plate from a different direction. It wasn’t from the direction that everyone else was shooting or I was shooting.
And, so, you know, there’s nothing to do with it at that time, but that’s something to always keep in the back of your mind. And I definitely felt that I got hit from that direction. So when we pushed forward, Staff Sergeant Gallardo, myself, Specialist Casey and Specialist Clary, we pushed forward together. But when we were pushing forward, we were also throwing grenades. So we’re throwing grenades; we’re moving when the grenades explode.
And Casey is the one that was on the SAW, which is -- it’s a mass-casualty-producing weapon. It -- he’s shooting more rounds than everyone else. So it’s more important for him to be playing his part, and his part was to do more shooting than moving, at that time.
And we made it to Specialist Eckrode. And I was out of grenades, so there was no need for all -- you know, all four of us to be with Eckrode when there was still further to go and I didn’t have any more grenades and I had the forward-momentum going. So I didn’t run up to do anything heroic or to save -- to save Brennan. Brennan, in my mind, wasn’t in trouble. I was just going to go up and I’m going to find Brennan and we’re going to shoot together, because it’s better to shoot with a buddy than be shooting alone.
So there was no fear in my mind. The fear was the same: Everyone’s getting shot at. Everyone’s in the same boat. No sense leaving five people there. I’ll just keep on going. I’m running anyway. I’m out a grenade. Might as well just run. And the direction was forward. But that was the direction we were all going.
Q Jenny, do you know where you were on that night in 2007? I don’t know the background of your relationship. Did you know Sal then? Where would you have been in the fall of 2007?
MRS. GIUNTA: I was in Vicenza, Italy. I didn’t know that the incident had happened that night, but I found out the next day.
Q So you knew Sal already? You were a couple already at that point?
MRS. GIUNTA: Yeah, we met in 2004, so this was the second deployment that I had known him to go through. The first deployment I was just in the States; the second one I stayed in Vicenza.
Q Hi, it’s Courtney Kube from NBC News again. You mentioned that you’re just a -- an average guy there, but once you get this Medal of Honor in a few weeks, you really won’t be the average soldier anymore. You’re going to -- you’ll be in an elite group. And it probably means you may not deploy in the future. How do you feel about that? Are you -- are you disappointed? Will you fight against that? Do you still want to be putting yourself in these kinds of situations in the future?
SSGT. GIUNTA: Right now the future is an open book for us. And we’re talking some time in the future and some time down the road, and I think we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it.
Q Jenny, how do you feel about him deploying again?
MRS. GIUNTA: I don’t want it to happen. (Chuckles.) Having your husband, your boyfriend, your son, your loved one get deployed and knowing that they’re going to be somewhere that’s dangerous, and you know that they’re without water, without electricity, it’s an awful feeling.
Going through the whole time, for a year, it’s -- the days drag on; you’re constantly worried. And you don’t want anything to happen to him, so why would you want him to go back again?
Q Jenny, could you tell us a little bit about yourself -- first, most importantly, the correct spelling of your name?
MRS. GIUNTA: Could you say that again?
Q How would I spell your first name -- Jenny or Jennifer, or what do you prefer?
MRS. GIUNTA: You can just call me Jenny. And it’s spelled J-E-N-N-Y.
Q How old are you, and where are you from, Jenny?
MRS. GIUNTA: I’m 26 years old, and I’m from Dubuque, Iowa.
Q (Off mike) do for a living?
MRS. GIUNTA: Excuse me?
Q What do you do?
MRS. GIUNTA: Currently, right now I work as a youth assistant at the teen center on post. And I teach yoga at the gym twice a week. And I’m also taking a couple online classes to try and get into an ultrasound program next fall.
Q Busy. (Chuckles.)
MRS. GIUNTA: Yeah, a little bit of a lot of things.
Q Staff Sergeant Giunta, this is Justin Fishel from Fox. Tell me what your family said when they heard you were picked for this honor. How did they react? What did they say to you?
SSGT. GIUNTA: My parents were proud, and they’ve expressed that throughout my whole life.
Even -- I don’t know -- tying my shoes made them proud; riding my bike without my training wheels made them proud. They’re very -- they’re very proud parents. And this was -- this was one more thing.
They were proud when I joined the Army. They were -- they’re always going to be proud of me. They expressed that pride to me and -- I mean -- (chuckles) -- they’re very proud. I don’t -- I don’t know -- even have another word for it. I’m having a hard time articulating how they feel.
COL. LAPAN: Okay.
Q (Off mike) American Forces Press Service.
Can you tell me, what is your most enduring impression of the two deployments you spent in Afghanistan?
SSGT. GIUNTA: My most enduring impression of both deployments in Afghanistan are the quality of people that continue to be pushed to Afghanistan and go to Afghanistan time after time after time again, and how they are willing to do something most people won’t do, and then they’re willing to do it again. And I guess my most enduring thought is how tough the guys around me really are.
COL. LAPAN: Larry.
Q I’ve interviewed half-a-dozen Medal of Honor recipients from Vietnam, Korea, and I always ask them the same question, and I get the same answer over time. So I’m going to give you a chance.
Are you a hero?
SSGT. GIUNTA: If I’m a hero -- if I’m a hero -- every man that stands around me, every woman, in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero; so if you think that that’s a hero -- as long as you include everyone with me.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Staff Sergeant Giunta and Jenny, Colonel Lapan again from the Pentagon. Thank you for your time. I know it’s getting late there in Vicenza.
Thank you again for your service, both of you. And we look forward to seeing you at the White House here pretty soon.
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