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Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta

Image by US Army Africa
Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta

U.S. Army photo

President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, U.S. Army, in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House Nov. 16, 2010 — the first living service member from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive it.

When enemy forces in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley ambushed then-Spc. Giunta’s platoon on the evening of Oct. 25, 2007, the infantry team leader braved heavy enemy fire to rescue fellow paratroopers.

(To veiw the 30-minute U.S. Army Africa video interveiw with Staff Sgt. Giunta, go to: Vicenza paratrooper to be awarded Medal of Honor from US Army Africa on Vimeo.

Giunta, of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, will be awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for valor under fire.

The Hiawatha, Iowa-native is the first living service member to earn the award since Vietnam. The medal will be presented in a ceremony at a date and time still to be determined.

A 2003 graduate of Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, Giunta has served two tours of Afghanistan. Now a staff sergeant serving in Vicenza, Italy, Giunta of Hiawatha, Iowa, knew of the nomination several months ago, but the announcement still came as a shock.

“This is a great honor, but it is not mine to take sole ownership of. I only did the next thing that needed to be done, and I was only able to do that because all of the men around me had the rest taken care of. It’s hard to take credit for simply taking the next step when so many steps had already been taken by everyone else,” Giunta said.

Not a day goes by that Giunta, now a staff sergeant serving at Vicenza’s Caserma Ederle, does not recall what he and fellow paratroopers faced that evening.

The first platoon of Company B – known to 173rd paratroopers as “Battle Company” – were heading back to their base camp in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley following a long day watching over fellow paratroopers in an Afghan village. It was the final day of Operation Rock Avalanche. Throughout the day, enemy radio intercepts spoke of an impending attack.

Evening was approaching as Giunta’s platoon stretched in to a snaking file down the spur to the Korengal outpost. Roughly thirty paces separated each paratrooper as the moved out.

Sgt. Joshua Brennan, a 22-year-old team leader from Ontario, Ore., on his second tour in Afghanistan, was up front. Behind Brennan, manning an M249 squad automatic weapon, was Spc. Frank Eckrode then squad leader, Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, 24, Chula Vista, Calif.

AH-64 Apache helicopters chopped the moonlit evening above as the platoon made their way down goat trails.

Giunta, who carried an M-4 assault rifle was just behind with his team. Pfc. Kaleb Casey carried his M249 squad automatic weapon, followed by Pfc. Garrett Clary with an M203, a 5.56 mm rifle combined with a 40 millimeter grenade launcher.

Along their path, more than a dozen enemy fighters waited, readying their Russian-style rocket propelled grenades, PKM 7.62 mm heavy machine guns, and Kalishnikov rifles. They had set up an L-shape, with an RPG and PKM at the apex of the formation. As Brennan walked just 30 feet from their over watch position, the enemy open fired.

An enemy RPG exploded, followed by a burst of machine gun fire. Brennan fell to the ground. Machine China guns fired at the platoon’s flank. Eckrode was hit. He dropped to the ground, returned fire and tried to find cover.

Gallardo tried to run forward, but was met with RPG explosions and sustained machine gun fire. He returned fire and started back to Giunta’s position, falling into a ditch as an AK-47 round struck his helmet. Giunta jumped up, exposing himself to deadly fire, to assist his squad leader.

Giunta ran just a few steps when two enemy AK-47 rounds struck his body. The first shot hit the body armor on Giunta’s chest, the second hit over his left shoulder, striking a disposable rocket launcher strapped to his rucksack. But Giunta kept going, reaching Gallardo and dragging him back to where Giunta’s fire team had begun fighting back.

Gallardo got Giunta’s team online and the four paratroopers began bounding through withering enemy fire to rescue Eckrode and Brennan. Dropping for cover, they prepared fragmentation grenades to throw at the enemy to cover their next move. Casey continued to fire his machine gun at enemy muzzle flashes, less than a half city block away. Gallardo counted to three and the team hurled grenades toward enemy positions. Once they heard the explosions, they moved closer to their wounded comrades.

Eckrode called out. He was wounded, but still trying to fight. Gallardo started first aid on Eckrode while Casey, who found a bullet hole in his uniform, scanned for enemy targets.

Giunta and Clary kept running toward where Brennan fell, only to find two enemy fighters carrying a severely-wounded Brennan away. While still running, Giunta fired his assault rifle, causing them to drop Brennan and flee. Giunta emptied the rest of his magazine, killing one enemy. Giunta knelt down to help Brennan as Clary ran past, firing 40-milimeter rounds toward the retreating enemy.

Giunta saw Brennan’s injuries were severe and required more than he could offer there on the battlefield. He removed Brennan’s gear and began treating his buddy, while calling back to Gallardo for help. Brennan was trying to talk. Giunta reassured his friend as he tended to Brennan’s wounds.

Other paratroopers from the platoon were also wounded. Spc. Hugo Mendoza, was killed. Brennan, who was hoisted into a helicopter, later succumbed to his wounds.

“Giunta is a great friend and an outstanding paratrooper,” said Gallardo, now serving with Battle Company in Afghanistan. “His actions that day meant the difference between life and death to myself and other Soldiers. For that I am grateful.”

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