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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta

Nov. 18, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

In 2010, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta became the first living Medal of Honor recipient in nearly 40 years. 

Those who receive the coveted honor usually say their teammates share in the honor, and Giunta was no exception. In fact, he recently gave the medal to the brigade with whom he served, saying it belonged to all of them. 

A soldier in uniform and red beret poses with his arms crossed over his chest. A flag flies in the background.
Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team out of Vicenza, Italy, poses for a photo in front of the brigade’s headquarters, May 25, 2010.
Photo By: Richard Bumgardner, Army
VIRIN: 100525-O-ZZ999-001

Giunta was born Jan. 21, 1985, and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was the oldest of three children in an Italian-American family. In 2003, Giunta, then 17, saw a recruitment commercial while working at a sandwich restaurant, and he decided to enlist in the Army. He went to basic training and was assigned to the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, in May 2004.

During his first yearlong combat deployment to Afghanistan in March 2005, Giunta was shot in the leg and saw four fellow soldiers die after a roadside bomb went off. A little more than a year after returning from that deployment, Giunta's unit was sent back to Afghanistan. 

07:07

Months into his second deployment, the 22-year-old then-specialist was acting as B Company, 1st Platoon’s rifle team leader during a multiday combat mission called Operation Rock Avalanche. On Oct. 25, 2007, the platoon was on a night patrol in the Korengal Valley, the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The soldiers were going single-file down a steep, rocky crest when they were ambushed by Taliban fighters, separating them from the unit's two other platoons. 

I'm not here because I'm a great soldier. I'm here because I served with great soldiers.''
Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta

Giunta quickly ran for cover and started to fire back when he saw his squad leader get hit in the helmet and go down. Giunta ran toward the injured man, dodging gunfire to reach him and make sure he was OK. In the process, Giunta was hit twice – one bullet hit his body armor, and the other splintered a gun strapped to his back. 

Despite the close call, Giunta continued to fire back and started throwing grenades so he and other soldiers could slowly move forward to reach their wounded comrades. When they made it to the injured men, Giunta realized the point man of the platoon – his best friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan – was missing. So, he kept going forward on his own. 

An Army platoon poses near two utility vehicles and a few tents in Afghanistan.
Platoon Photo
Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s B Company, 1st Platoon, pose for a photo in Afghanistan after a convoy, May 17, 2005.
Photo By: Courtesy of the Giunta family
VIRIN: 050517-A-ZZ999-964

When Giunta reached the top of the hill, he saw two Taliban insurgents attempting to carry a severely wounded Brennan away. Giunta didn't hesitate and went after them, killing one insurgent and wounding the other, who ran away. 

When Giunta got to Brennan, he pulled his friend to cover and started giving him aid as the squad caught up to provide security. Giunta kept Brennan alive until he was evacuated off the ridge about a half hour later, but Brennan died the next day.

Meanwhile, American airpower was able to help in staving off the insurgent attack. Giunta's platoon then continued on its mission, despite losing five men to injuries and dealing with the apparent deaths of Brennan and Spc. Hugo V. Mendoza.

President Barack Obama clasps the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who solemnly looks forward.
Medal of Honor Presentation
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta during a White House ceremony, Nov.16, 2010.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 101116-A-ZZ999-456

Two days later, Giunta learned he was being recommended for the Medal of Honor. 

On Nov. 16, 2010, 25-year-old Giunta received the nation's highest honor at a White House ceremony attended by many of the men with whom he had served, becoming the first living Medal of Honor recipient to receive the honor since the Vietnam War. 

''Salvatore Giunta risked his life for his fellow soldiers because they would risk their lives for him,'' President Barack Obama said during the ceremony. ''That’s what fueled his bravery -- not just the urgent impulse to have their backs, but the absolute confidence that they had his.''

An Army commander and a veteran in plain clothes salute a memorial plaque on a walkway. Other soldiers stand at attention around it. Civilians also look on.
Walkway Dedication
Army Col. Gregory Anderson, 173rd Airborne Brigade commander, and Medal of Honor recipient Salvatore Giunta dedicate the Medal of Honor Walkway outside of the 173rd Airborne Brigade headquarters building in Vicenza, Italy, July 5, 2017.
Photo By: Army Spc. Stephen M. Malone
VIRIN: 170705-A-YJ190-001
The Medal of Honor is held in the hands of a soldier in long-sleeve uniform.
170705-A-YJ190-001
Army Col. Gregory Anderson, 173rd Airborne Brigade commander, holds former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta’s Medal of Honor in his hands along the walkway outside of the 173rd Airborne Brigade headquarters building in Vicenza, Italy, July 5, 2017.
Photo By: Army Spc. Stephen M. Malone
VIRIN: 170705-A-YJ190-001C

Giunta insisted he just did what any good soldier would do. In July 2017, he gave his medal to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team during a ceremony in Vicenza, saying he wanted it to remain with them. 

''I'm not here because I'm a great soldier,'' Giunta said at the ceremony. ''I'm here because I served with great soldiers.''

Giunta left the Army in 2011 and published an autobiography called ''Living With Honor'' in 2012. He's pursuing a business degree at Colorado State University and lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children. 

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.