ACG interviews the first living Medal of Honor recipient for actions occurring after the Vietnam War.
On a quiet, dark night in late October 2007, Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. “Sal” Giunta and his squad in Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, stared down death during an insurgent ambush in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – a place that has more than earned its grim nickname, “Valley of Death.” For his heroic actions above and beyond the call of duty that night, Giunta became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions occurring after the Vietnam War when President Obama presented Giunta the United States’ highest valor award in a White House ceremony held November 16, 2010. (See Medal of Honor Citation excerpt, p. 20.) Receiving that medal changed Giunta’s life forever. ACG correspondent John Ingoldsby recently interviewed the Iowa native and former U.S. Army staff sergeant.
What does the Medal of Honor mean to you?
GIUNTA: The Medal of Honor has taken on a different meaning to me from my first moment receiving it to what it means to me now. When I first received the medal, it was for an action, a moment in time, and as I grew from that and spoke with other Medal of Honor recipients that I have been fortunate enough to meet along my travels in the last two years, the medal has come to represent the men and women in uniform and their service to our country. All of those Soldiers, not just in wartime but in peacetime, and not just those that come back with other medals on their chest, but all those that have truly served, sacrificed and given for this country, for all those that had given everything for this country, that is what the Medal of Honor represents. It symbolizes the strength, effort, care and compassion we have as American citizens to fight and defend this great country.
Have you found that your award of the Medal of Honor has inspired others?
GIUNTA: It has, and one of the more incredible things for me is that four different people came up to me on separate occasions and said they would join the military after hearing my story. All four of them were older teenagers that were maybe thinking about it, but they said my story put them over the top. I’m not saying that the military is the right answer for everyone, but it really did make me the man I am, and I don’t think I could have learned the lessons I did without it. The fact that these people are choosing this life of service to their country based on a story they heard is exciting to hear, and I’m excited that I have that sort of influence.
Was enlisting in the military something you had aspired to?
GIUNTA: It was really a short-term decision. I thought about joining the military after September 11, 2001, but I was only 16 at the time, still in high school and too young to join, and then that feeling kind of left me. Later, I actually went into a recruiting station for a free T-shirt, which they were promising if you came in and talked to a recruiter. When I went in, the recruiter said very simply, “We’re a country at war. We’ve been in Afghanistan since 2001, we’ve been in Iraq since 2003, and if you want to make a tangible difference, this is your way of doing it.” I thought about that over the next 10 or so days, and decided I would enlist in the Army for four years. That was all it took for me.
What emotions did you experience when you found out you were to become the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions occurring after the Vietnam War?
GIUNTA: Upon first hearing it I was shocked and very uneasy with the whole situation. My wife and I had talked about it from the time I found out that I would receive it, which was about three years after I was put in for it. My wife and I had a good life and were happy with the way that everything was going, and we knew that if this did happen it would be a life-changing type of deal. If life’s going really good for you, a lifechanging deal almost says that it’s going to go somewhere different, if not negative. I was very skeptical of my very good life changing into something else.
What stands out most to you from your combat action for which you received the medal?
GIUNTA: What stands out most to me is one of the first things that I did when all of the bullets were flying in the air, [changing] from a perfectly quiet night to the world exploding on us. As team leader, I was turning and seeing two guys just do everything they were supposed to do – react and be true professional Soldiers as leaders of people doing everything correctly. It was a proud moment. One stood there and shot his M249 [light machine gun], which can shoot 900 rounds per minute with quick reload, and he didn’t do it for himself, he did it to give us freedom of movement. He became the immediate target, looking almost like a dragon blowing fire at night. That night’s feeling all comes back to that first five seconds of it all, more than anything that I ever did for sure.
During the insurgent attack, did you react instinctively or did you have time to think?
GIUNTA: It was mostly instinct, but also there was time to think. We trained for this before and knew what needed to happen; but in the midst of everything, linking up with the other people was our primary objective. Then we needed to end the ambush, which ultimately meant pushing into the enemy ambush line. We knew how all those things were going to fall into place and how we were going to react as a team through that. It takes a moment of thought, but most of it just turns into implementing the next step. The instinct is important because every situation in war is different than the one previous. No matter how much they’re similar, they’ll always be different because there are too many variables in it. But with a little thought and great training as professional Soldiers, we were able to come through that without too much thought. We decided to make sure certain boxes were checked so we could have a certain follow-on of procedure.
What was it like for you writing your superb book, Living With Honor: A Memoir?
GIUNTA: I worked with an excellent author, Joe Layden, who put the words to letters and letters to sentences and so on, which actually created the book. But for me, the book was never planned. I talked to a few other Medal of Honor recipients who had written books before, and their general theme was to write the book that tells the bigger picture of how it’s not just you, which you can explain in your own words, and people reading the book will read this. That appealed to me, to talk about the people that I had the privilege of serving with in my unit and the military overall.
What leader in history do you most admire?
GIUNTA: President Abraham Lincoln, since I recently watched the movie, after not knowing that much about him until the movie. He’s actually been a fascinating new interest of mine as a person, a man, and, in particular, a leader in his time. [See the DVD section of Must-Read/Must-See in the July 2013 issue of ACG for more about the movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.]
What do you consider are the main traits of truly outstanding leaders?
GIUNTA: A leader always leads from the front and keeps the moral and ethical high ground while setting a positive example. During my time in the military, I came up under great leaders and never had a boss that wasn’t a leader. In the military they raise them as leaders who become bosses and not vice versa, which I think is something pretty special.
What subjects in military history most interest you?
GIUNTA: The most interesting to me is World War II and the campaigns in Europe and D-Day, the Big Red One [1st U.S. Infantry Division]. I like to hear the stories that come out of D-Day and that time in America, particularly the patriotic attitude and mentality that those Soldiers had at that time. The country coming together and rallying behind one common goal also impresses and intrigues me, especially the way we were able to do that in those dire days of World War II.
John Ingoldsby conducted this interview. He is a leading writer on the intersection of sports and the military and is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment Inc. (IIRsports.com), a public relations and media firm in Boston.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.