Behind the Scenes: Interviewing Medal of Honor Recipient Sal Giunta

Nov 17, 2010 12:34am

From ABC News’ Kristina Wong: In preparing for our upcoming interview with Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, I read and watched dozens of articles and interviews with Giunta, a soft-spoken guy who was up for the highest honor the military can bestow on its own.  It’s an honor so rare for a living recipient –  it has not happened since the Vietnam War. I watched the soft-spoken 25-year-old respond to questions with poise and thoughtfulness, and always humility. The most noticeable theme in every interview I saw or read of him, was that he was always trying to mask his contributions behind what others did. After one interview — he was so convincing, I almost believed him. The way he described the events of Oct. 25, 2007 — the day he is recognized for, when his platoon was ambushed on its way back to Korengal Outpost — everyone that day was a hero. All, according to Giunta, did exactly what they were supposed to do that day, making it possible to do what he did. But as I continued reading, the picture became clearer and clearer – that then Spc. Sal Giunta went above and beyond what was expected of him that day. With his squad separated from the rest of the platoon, and pinned down by enemy fire coming at close-range from two different directions, Giunta twice risked his life by leaving cover to rescue a squad member he believed was shot in the head, and another that was being dragged away by two enemy combatants, all while staging a counterassault against the enemy and depriving them of what could have been a well-executed victory. When he arrived at our interview with our correspondent Martha Raddatz, his first interview of the day, he didn’t go around the room shaking everyone’s hand, oozing with bravado or self-importance. He quietly walked in, said a few friendly hellos, looked around him, at the lights, at the cameras, before reluctantly taking his seat in front of the cameras. And still, he wouldn’t talk about his bravery that day. Part of it is humility, but another part of it is pain. It’s also the day he lost one of his best friends, Sgt. Joshua Brennan. After the cameras turned off, the bright lights dimmed, and his wife Jennifer came into the room, he relaxed. He went from Sal Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, to Sal Giunta, the guy who would then take five to 10 minutes before his next interview posing for pictures with our crew.  It was then I dared approach him – what do you say to and ask of a person who’s already given so much? “I just want to shake your hand!” I told him. He almost seemed surprised.  And the guy who complained at the beginning of the interview about how his hand was sore from shaking the day before generously offered the warmest of handshakes and a beaming smile, before posing for yet another photo. It’s not every day you meet a Medal of Honor recipient. But it wasn’t until Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo — with Giunta on that day — sat down with Martha that we began to hear the darker details. “My wife doesn’t know the full story, my family still doesn’t know the full story, they’re getting what they know from TV, and not that the story’s out there, it’s the first time any of them have heard of it, actually they know I was there, but they don’t know exactly my actions and what everybody did that night,” Gallardo told us. Why not talk, Martha asked. “Memories,” Gallardo responded. “It hurts. Everything that went on that night. Losing Josh, Mendoza, the emotions that went through everybody’s bodies that night. Emotions I never felt, emotions I never want to feel again. Just, horrifying, it’s just chaotic. It was a real life nightmare. Something I just don’t want to think about." Gallardo describes how Giunta ran from cover to grab him. “It was within the first couple of seconds, we were still within the first 20 seconds of the firefight, the ambush, and they were still, still pummeling us with everything they had. RPG’s were still smacking around us. When I hit the ground, I remember when I got hit the first thing I thought was, ‘Did I just get shot in the head?’ That’s the first thing I thought. And I was down on my back, I was still trying to shoot, and I was down on my back. Next thing I know Sal is coming up to me and says, ‘We gotta go’, picks me up, I get back to his team and that’s when, we just did what we did from there. There was no hesitation. We put the plan together, and we just went. “He just grabbed me by the back of the rucksack I had on my back, picked me up from that, we went backwards together. Just came out and grabbed me, said, ‘We gotta go.’” He also described the moment they knew they lost Sgt. Brennan. “It was devastating, you know. I lost a friend. I lost a brother, you know,” Gallardo paused. “It hurt,” he says quietly, fighting back the emotion in his voice. “It hurt. It hurt really bad.” I looked over to my right, and saw Gallardo’s wife with tears rolling down her cheeks, perhaps at a story she hasn’t heard yet. “I really thought what we did that night,” Gallardo continued, “he was going to get to come back with us and we would see him again.  You know, we knew he wasn’t going to make it back to Afghanistan, but then we thought we’d have some drinks with him in the rear.” “I lost it completely you know,” Gallardo said. “What went on that, the whole operation, especially that night, the emotions, you couldn’t control them anymore, you know, I was done controlling them, my body took over.” At that moment, an older soldier in the room was also overcome. He suddenly leaned forward into his chair, his hand covering his eyes. Hearing the raw emotions Gallardo felt for his fallen brother in arms struck a nerve — his very own son had just deployed to Afghanistan just that day. But he may take comfort in at least one reassuring thought, directly from the words of our newest recipient of the Medal of Honor — his son will never be alone. “I’ve never been to combat alone, I’ve never been to a firefight alone, I’ve never been shot at alone, and since I’ve been in the Army, I’ve never been left alone,” Giunta tells us. “And all of that and this is for everyone that’s ever been with me, and touched my life, and supported me, and showing me what right looks like, and I’d like to thank them."

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