Roy Exum: ‘No Sir -- It Stays Here’

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

To any of the millions who have served the United States on the field of combat, the most hallowed and prized distinction is our nation’s Medal of Honor. It is never given, it is always earned before it is ever awarded.  At least that’s the way it was up until a sun-splashed Wednesday three weeks ago in Vicenza, Italy. There is an Army base there that houses the 173rd Airborne Brigade and, to honor the fact that Sgt. Salvatore Augustine Giunta earned The Medal while fighting in Afghanistan 10 years before, a stunning 173rd Airborne Brigade ‘Medal of Honor Walkway’ was being dedicated.

Sgt. Giunta attended the dedication and, in his remarks to the brigade, he unsnapped his Medal of Honor and said, “I want this to stay here in Vicenza, Italy, with the 173rd to the men and women that earn this every single day through their selflessness and sacrifice,” he said, handing the medal to a shocked commandant as the brigade itself went wild.

Giunta, at the time a 22-year-old from Iowa where his dad repaired medical equipment, was coming back from a mission in the Afghan mountains. It had just become Oct. 25, 2007, this a little past midnight local time. His rifle squad was moving through a stand of sparse holly at about 8,000 feet when they walked into an overwhelming ambush. The Taliban was in a classic “L attack,” using AK-47s, 10 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and four belt-fed PKM machine guns.

Heavily loaded with tracer bullets, the Taliban attack was merciless. “There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky,” Giunta later said. “A wall of bullets … every one at the same time with one crack and then a million other cracks afterwards. They’re above you, in front of you, behind you, below you. They’re hitting in the dirt early. They’re going over your head. Just all over the place. They were close—as close as I’ve ever seen.”

In field training, the Army experts say the best way out of an “L” I to advance forward. Here’s how President Obama described what happened three years later at the Metal of Honor Award ceremony:

* * *

"Then-Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself by acts of gallantry at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a rifle team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment during combat operations against an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan on October 25, 2007.

When an insurgent force split Specialist Giunta's squad into two groups, he exposed himself to enemy fire to pull a comrade back to cover. Later, while engaging the enemy and attempting to link up with the rest of his squad, Specialist Giunta noticed two insurgents carrying away a fellow soldier. (It was Sal’s best friend, Sgt. Joshua Brennan, who had been mortally wounded.)

“(Giunta) immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other, and provided medical aid to his wounded comrade while the rest of his squad caught up and provided security. His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability [to] defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow paratrooper from enemy hands."

* * *

Sal remembers, “I ran through fire to see what was going on with Josh … maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. It was bad. He wanted morphine but he was breathing. I said, ‘You’ll get out of here and tell your hero stories’ and he was like … ‘I will … I will.”

Giunta immediately started first aid as bullets zipped like angry bees around his head. His ceramic chest shield was hit. So was his auxiliary weapon. Total chaos surrounded him. Others in the squad soon began cover fire as Sal loaded his friend with morphine and finally carried Josh to an evac chopper.  Brennan died during surgery the next day.

The Taliban who Sal killed trying to take Brennan as prisoner was later identified as Mohammad Tali, a high-profile target, and an AC-136 gunship soon spotted the other wounded assailant carrying Brennan’s rucksack. The man was vaporized.

The entire ambush lasted about three minutes but Giunta still carries the pain of Brennan’s death. “Two minutes … three minutes … five or six lifetimes … I don’t know.” He told CNN. “I think about it and it hurt. But to say it out loud, to talk about it, makes it seem more real and I feel I’ve said enough. Sometimes I try to trick myself and not talk about it but it comes back. It was real.”

His fellow soldiers were in awe of Sal’s heroics. “You don’t understand what you did,” squad leader Erick Gallardo told him, “It was pretty crazy. We were out-numbered. You stopped the fight. You stopped them from taking a soldier. For all intents and purposes, with the amount of fire that was going on and in the conflict at that time, you shouldn’t have been alive.”

Several days after the firefight, Giunta was called before Capt. Dan Kearney and advised the brigade would recommend the Medal of Honor. Let’s listen: “Sir, if I am a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone that goes into the unknown is a hero …. In this job I am only mediocre. I’m average. I did what I did because in the scheme of painting that ambush, that was just my brushstroke. That’s no above and beyond. I didn’t take the biggest brushstroke and I it wasn’t the most important brushstroke … Sir, wearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face.”

When Giunta spoke to the crowd at the dedication, and handed over The Medal, Sgt. Major Frank Velez told CNN, “there were a few gasps and then folks went wild. It was incredible, no one believed what just happened.”

No one except Sal Giunta. “I am not here because I am a great soldier. I am here because I served with great soldiers. People wanting to shake my hand because of it, it hurts me, because it’s not what I want. To be with so many people doing so much stuff and then to be singled out and put forward? I mean, everybody did something.

“The medal belongs to the 173rd Brigade.”

It is now on permanent display in a well-secured marker at the Medal of Honor Walkway. If you are ever in Italy, never forget how it got there. Never forget what it means. It is who we are. Never forget.

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