By Airman 1st Class Rose Gudex
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — After seeing the towers fall that fateful September day in 2001, a student who didn’t want to learn about the viscosity of liquids said his life changed forever. He wanted to save the world, but his mom said “no.”
Fast forward nine years and Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 25, would become the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War for his acts of heroism and bravery in the face of the enemy.
Giunta spoke of his experiences and explained the importance of “giving your all” to Team Peterson personnel at the Base Auditorium, Aug. 10.
His story started in high school, with the typical high school challenges. Who was he going to take to the dance, how much homework was he going to get, when did he get to play sports?
“Whatever it was, it was always about me,” Giunta said. “And so that idea of service, it was a fleeting feeling for me (at the time).”
After he joined the Army, Giunta said he realized how much service members care for each other. That was a new concept for him. It was no longer about him, but rather what was best for everyone.
One of the moments that put this concept into perspective for Giunta, happened during a fire fight while his team was on patrol. He was shot in the leg and had to walk all the way back to camp. He said it felt like they were all alone out there with no one around who cared how beaten down and tired they were.
That feeling changed when a C-130 Hercules arrived with what he called a “God light” and provided support the entire way back to camp. He said he realized the support comrades have for each other. They care.
“Every single painful step of the way, they were there — they stayed above us,” Giunta said. “That idea of not being cared for, just because you don’t see the team, doesn’t mean the team is not there.”
On his next tour to Afghanistan, he continued to demonstrate comradeship when he found himself on a remote hillside where his team was split apart. He repeatedly ran through enemy fire to save his teammates and tried to get his team back together.
At one point in particular, the one that ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor, Giunta was searching for his teammate, Staff Sgt. Brennan, but couldn’t find him. He saw two figures carrying a third in the opposite direction and, confused, ran towards them. As he got closer, he realized what was happening.
“It was two enemy combatants carrying Sgt. Brennen,” he said. “And I did exactly what I said I would do in the basement of the Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when I was 18 years old. Destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”
Giunta said he “did his work” on the Taliban men and dragged Brennen back to the rest of the team. He literally rescued an American Soldier from the hands of the Taliban. To him, it was not about his actions, but those of his teammates.
After hours of a firefight and getting low on ammunition, the team started taking extra gear — extra plates, guns, bullets, night-vision goggles — from their fallen comrades.
“I could feel the true, physical weight of all my buddies,” Giunta said. “I wasn’t carrying it because they couldn’t do it anymore or they didn’t like it. It was because they gave every single ounce they could give for us to have another breath. I walked back with that thought in my head for two hours.”
For everything he had been through and his bravery in combat, putting others before himself, President Obama presented Giunta the Medal of Honor November 2010 — the first living recipient since the Vietnam War.
“Everything changed when I stood on the stage at the White House,” he said. “This medal was not my medal. This medal is greater than any individual — it’s an idea of service, of sacrifice, patriotism, honor, integrity, of putting others in front of you. “
Giunta said the Medal of Honor is a light medal, but he knows what it represents. It represents the biggest, the fastest, the strongest, the bravest and the most selfless people. He’s just a placeholder for it.
He said it doesn’t matter what branch of service you belong to, or even what country. It’s all about service. If a person gives it their all, 100 percent, there will be no regrets.