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Valor | No Man Left Behind

By Chuck Lyons
5/1/2016 • Military History Magazine

Specialist Salvatore Giunta

U.S. Army

Medal of Honor

Afghanistan

Oct. 25, 2007

For repeatedly risking his life to recover stricken fellow soldiers under what his citation describes as “withering enemy fire,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2010, thus becoming the first living American since the Vietnam War to receive the decoration.

On the night of Oct. 25, 2007, then Specialist Giunta and five other squad members of 1st Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, were leading the platoon down a moonlit mountain spur toward their combat outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The men had spent the day providing overwatch for another platoon operating in the valley. The day had been quiet, though the unit’s radiomen had picked up chatter among Taliban insurgents.

Spaced 30 to 45 feet apart, the six-man squad had walked only a few hundred feet when engulfed in a hail of AK-47 rounds fired by three Taliban fighters directly to their front and machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire from a dozen other insurgents to the left of the trail.

Crews of Apache helicopters overhead could hear the firing but could not respond, as the fight was at such close quarters. At the base of the ridge the men of 2nd Platoon also heard the firing, but the rough terrain delayed their response.

The opening shots of the ambush had downed the two soldiers in the lead—Sergeant Joshua Brennan, walking point, and Specialist Frank Eckrode—and mortally wounded Specialist Hugo Mendoza, the platoon medic. Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, the squad leader and third in line, tried to move forward to help Brennan and Eckrode but was driven back by RPG explosions. He was backpedaling uphill to join Giunta and the others when struck in the helmet by an AK-47 round.

Giunta immediately jumped up and ran through the wall of lead to aid Gallardo, who was uninjured and quickly recovered his senses. As the two scrambled for cover, an AK-47 round slammed into the front ceramic plate of Giunta’s protective vest, while another hit the bazooka-like SMAW-D “bunker buster” slung across his back.

Counterintuitive as the tactic may seem, the best way to defeat an ambush is to charge into it, and Gallardo, Giunta and Pfcs. Kaleb Casey and Garrett Clary did just that. With Casey firing his M249 squad automatic weapon and Clary an M203 grenade launcher, the foursome stepped off, hurling grenades, firing at enemy muzzle flashes and moving forward until locating Eckrode. While Gallardo treated his wounds, and Casey and Clary laid down covering fire, Giunta searched for Brennan. But he was gone.

By then the enemy was withdrawing, covering the retreat with small-arms fire. Giunta moved on alone and spotted two insurgents dragging Brennan. The specialist immediately opened fire with his M4 carbine, killing one of the Taliban and scaring off the other. He then recovered the badly wounded Brennan and got him to cover. Gallardo soon joined Giunta, and the two remained at Brennan’s side, talking to him and rendering what first aid they could until a medic from another platoon arrived.

The Apaches, an AC-130 gunship and a high-flying B-1 bomber wreaked vengeance on the fleeing insurgents as a medevac Blackhawk came in to remove the wounded and Mendoza’s body. Giunta and the other survivors then resumed the two-hour march to their outpost. Brennan died the next day in surgery.

The Korengal firefight had lasted three minutes. 

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