Staff Sgt. Salvatore "Sal" Giunta is one of the most modest soldiers you will ever meet. It is difficult for him to believe that he is deserving of the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan. But on Sept. 9, President Obama called the 25-year-old soldier to tell him he was nominating him as the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.
I first met Giunta in Italy, where he is currently stationed, just days after that call. He told me "In my mind, this medal is for everyone. This medal isn't for my actions. They're going to say Staff Sgt. Giunta, but that medal is going to be for everyone out there in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting every single day."
Little did I know that I would see Giunta again less than a week later on the beaches of Normandy, France. Like me, Giunta had been invited to join an Army tour of the battlefields by Gen. Carter Ham, who is the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. Ham is a veteran of the wars in Iraq, and someone I often covered during the most intense years of battle there. Giunta brought another young soldier with him, a "battle buddy," Staff Sgt. Caribou McDiarmid.
I had never been to Normandy before, nor had Ham nor either of the two young soldiers. It is hard to describe how emotional it is on those beaches where so many died, but whatever anyone else felt, the burden for Giunta was far greater. He would shake his head and say that compared to what those World War II veterans had been through, what he did was nothing.
But the most amazing moment of the trip came late in the day at the Normandy American Cemetery, where 9,387 American servicemen and women were buried. Among them were three Medal of Honor recipients.
As the sun was about to set, Giunta, McDiarmid and Ham were asked to help lower the flag for the night. All three were dressed in civilian clothes.
As the escort from the cemetery began explaining the ceremony protocol to Giunta, an elderly man with a cap that read "Korean War Veteran" overheard the conversation.
He approached Giunta rather indignantly and said "What? You don't know how to fold a flag?" Clearly, he assumed Giunta was some college kid who had no idea what he was doing.
But then Ham approached the veteran gently. He introduced himself, and then Giunta, "to whom the president is going to present the Medal of Honor." The Korean War veteran, who we later learned was former U.S. Marine Martin LeMasters, stood stunned for a moment and then quickly straightened up, faced the young soldier and saluted. Giunta returned the salute and thanked LeMasters for his own service that "allows us to live the way we do."
Ham then asked LeMasters to help them with the ceremony. As taps played and a small crowd gathered, these four men, two soldiers who served in Afghanistan, one who served in Iraq and one Marine from Korea, lowered the flag over the graves of the thousands of servicemembers who served in World War II. LeMasters later said it was the greatest day of his life since his return from the war.
The 77-year-old LeMasters served as a Marine Corps corporal during the Korean War. His daughter, Liz Baker, said he is proud of his military service and is very active in the VFW post in his hometown.
She said we "couldn't have come across a guy more devoted to his country and with extreme pride in his service. It's a big part of who he is."