Obama Awards The Medal of Honor to the First Living Recipient Since the Vietnam War

By Jenny Schlesinger

Nov 16, 2010 5:08pm

ABC News' Sunlen Miller reports:  Noting that as a soldier he is as “humble as he is heroic,” President Obama awarded Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, in a celebratory East Room ceremony this afternoon.   ”Now, I'm going to go off script here for a second and just say, I really like this guy,” Obama said, “when you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America's all about, and it just makes you proud.”  Today marked the first time in nearly 40 years that a recipient of the honor has been able to come to the White House to accept the recognition in person, the last nine awards since the end of Vietnam War have all been awarded posthumously.  Members of Giunta’s family from Iowa were in the audience, including his wife as were his fellow soldiers from the Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.  “It was his mother, after all, who apparently taught him as a young boy in small-town Iowa how to remove the screen from his bedroom window in case of fire,” Obama joked, “What she didn't know was that, by teaching Sal how to jump from his bedroom and sneaking off in the dead of night, she was unleashing a future paratrooper who would one day fight in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away."  The president described in great detail the night of October 25th, 2007 which led Giunta, then only 22 years-old, to receive the honor.  While “Sal” and his platoon traveled in the most dangerous valley in northeast Afghanistan the silence was shattered, Obama recalled his story, by an ambush so close that the “cracks of the guns and the whizzes of the bullets were simultaneous.”  “The two lead men were hit by enemy fire and knocked down instantly. When the third was struck in the helmet and fell to the ground, Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind what little cover there was. As he did, Sal was hit twice, one round slamming into his body armor, the other shattering a weapon slung across his back."  Sal and his platoon counterattacked after regrouping. “They threw grenades, using the explosions as cover to run forward, shooting at the muzzle flashes still erupting from the trees. Then they did it again, and again, throwing grenades, charging ahead,” Obama said.  Finally when they reached one of their men, who had been shot twice in the leg and attending to him, Sal sprinted ahead meeting the enemy fire with his own.  “He crested a hill alone with no cover but the dust kicked up by the storm of bullets still biting into the ground. There he saw a chilling sight: the silhouettes of two insurgents carrying the other wounded American away, who happened to be one of Sal's best friends. Sal never broke stride. He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off.”  The president said that Sal found his friend alive but badly wounded and proceeded to drag him to cover, stop the bleeding and help his friend breathe until the medevac arrived.  “It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience. By the time it was finished, every member of 1st Platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear. Five were wounded, and two gave their lives: Sal's friend Sergeant Joshua C. Brennan and the platoon medic, Specialist Hugo V. Mendoza."  The president noted that when he first spoke with Giunta over the phone to tell him he would be awarded the honor that Sal said he was just doing his job. “Staff Sergeant Giunta, repeatedly and without hesitation, you charged forward through extreme enemy fire, embodying the warrior ethos that says, I will never leave a fallen comrade. Your actions disrupted a devastating ambush before it could claim more lives. Your courage prevented the capture of an American soldier and brought that soldier back to his family. You may believe that you don't deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it.”  After the ceremony Giunta, and his wife came to the stakeout cameras of the White House driveway to speak with reporters. Giunta said he would give the honor back “in a second” if he could have his friends, the two that died that day, back.  Many members of the Medal of Honor Society were in the audience as well as several members of congress, the Secretary of Defense, Admiral Mike Mullen, Army Secretary John McHugh, and Army General George Casey.  For more information, click HERE. -Sunlen Miller

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