Sept. 14, 2010— -- The following is a transcript from ABC News' Martha Raddatz's phone interview today with author and photographer Tim Hetherington on what it was like to document soldiers' lives in a U.S. platoon based in Afghanistan. Hetherington was also there when Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta put his life on the line to save his comrades.
Martha Raddatz: I would first like, Tim, your reaction when you found out that [Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta] became the first recipient, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.
Tim Hetherington: It's an amazing thing to hear they're finally giving out a Medal of Honor to a soldier from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been six or seven, I think, posthumously, but never one before to a soldier that's alive, and considering how many acts of selfless bravery are being carried out every day out there, it's a wonder that someone hasn't been awarded one sooner. But having said that, what Sal did out there was pretty exceptional, I mean, many big guys out there are ready and trained and do these things that they wouldn't even call brave, but Sal had the opportunity to do that and he did it, and his actions in bringing back Josh Brennan from enemy hands, I think, I'm just thinking about what it means for the parents of Josh Brennan, and unfortunately he died, but at least he managed to rescue him from the clutches of the enemy. Probably a soldier's worst nightmare is to be taken off by them, so it was an amazing action.
Raddatz: And could you in your words describe that. We have read descriptions but you were there in that opearation, not specifically I know seeing that one, but from what you know, your description.
Hetherington: I mean, the thing about the wars in Afghanistan, they've been known as the ghost wars, you know, because not often does one really see the enemy. You know, you're fighting sometimes at distant, but they're very elusive, the insurgents, and on the night of the 25th of October, you know, Sal Giunta finally came face to face with them and when he did, it was because they were dragging off his friend Joshua Brennan. They'd been trapped in an ambush, an L-shaped ambush, which is a sophisticated kind of military ambush, a type the Americans would carry out, and they were being shot at very close range, I'd guess 15 or 20 feet and, you know, a lot of people were hit and two were killed in that ambush and you know, Sal Giunta wanted to push on ahead, he realized that the line that he was in, that his platoon had been broken by the ambush and that he realized that one of the soldiers, his friend Josh Brennan, must be up ahead and on his own and he went on to find him through a kind of hail of bullets, throwing grenades as he went and eventually when he reached the end he didn't find his friend, you know, on his own -- he found him being dragged off by two insurgents and he killed one of them and the other one went away and he managed to then drag his friend back to the safety of some of the other platoon members.
Raddatz: One of the things that people talk about is in a situation like that, what is it that gets you through the fear, what is it that gets you to do something like that? Obviously it's his friend, he's in the middle of the battle, but in your view is it teaming? What happens there?
Hetherington: I think an instinctual reaction that is bred not only just through training beforehand, but also what the men go through. They are this sense of brotherhood. What lays at the heart of the war machine is in fact the kind of brotherhood and that is so ingrained in the kind of fabric of their existence and day after day they are with these guys that -- it's different from friendship necessarily, of course they're friends, but brotherhood is something else. Brotherhood means laying down your life for somebody, really willing to sacrifice yourself for somebody else. And that has become so deeply ingrained in them, and that -- combined with that kind of instinctual training that a soldier goes through -- leads you to be able to do something like that.
Raddatz: Yeah, I have to say I've seen that as well, that it's fighting for the guy next to you and that's the answer I think I hear the most from people. You've spent so much time in the Korengal Valley, tell us, talk about the importance of the Korengal and of course in the end your magnificent documentary with "Restrepo."
Hetherington: Well, the Korengal Valley was -- at the end of 2007 -- was, you know, a place where physical combat across the whole of Afghanistan was taking place. You know, 70 percent of American bombs are being dropped in and around the operation at Korengal Valley and that whole company, you know, the 173rd Airborne, had a casualty rate of killed or wounded at 25 percent. So you know, going there as a documentarian, it was an incredible place to experience, if you were interested in the experience of the American soldier. And you know, fighting would happen nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I spent a long time in a small outpost called Restrepo. I was there once when it was attacked four times in one day, but the record was something like 14 times. So these guys went through a huge amount of fighting, something that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And you know the Korengal Valley was a treacherous and unforgiving place in that way, it was a very mountainous valley, you know, huge pine trees on the upper reaches of the mountains. It wasn't the kind of opium, sand images of southern Afghanistan, and here they were fighting a mixture of both local timber merchant fighters and then, you know, local Taliban and foreign fighters -- there were Arabs and Chechens and Uzbeks coming into the valley, Pakistani irregulars. So it was a real epicenter for the idea that we have whole for the war on terror. And you know, battle company was really the point of the spear and they suffered, they suffered a lot out there -- as did the civilians as well, but I'm talking about the soldiers, I think it's important to also remind that the civilians are also caught between a rock and a hard place out there.
Raddatz: When you look at, in particular a place like Restrepo and the fact that it closed eventually, do you wonder what troops were doing there to begin with and whether in fact they just became a bullet magnet?
Hetherington: Well, you know ... I think, the troops were sent out to the Korengal because they wanted to -- the Americans wanted to bring peace and civility to a valley called the Pech River Valley close down by the border of Pakistan, and so by drawing the fight into these side valleys, valleys like the Korengal, they were able to maintain a road and bring the lights and a bank even to the Pech River Valley, which is a main thoroughfare for goods and commerce. And as often in war, you know, sometimes it's a bit like a game of chess, there are squares on the chess board that become the focus for the battle and when, you know, as the battle moves on, those squares become, in some ways can be seen as being not that important -- they were just, that's where it took place, that's where the fighting took place. I guess now that the Americans have pulled out, there's probably not a lot going on in the Korengal. But it was just there, in that valley during those years of 2006, 7 and 8, that really are the huge focus of when the fighting went on.
Raddatz: Can I ask you, Tim, what it was like to see Sgt. Giunta again?
Hetherington: It was a really incredible moment to see him again. You know it's an amazing thing to spend time with those guys --
Raddatz: We should say that you saw him in Vicenza after he was named the recipient so it's --
Hetherington: You know I traveled to Vicenza to see Sal Giunta and it was an incredible kind of meeting for me personally. As I sat on the plane I remembered how that those days were very significant for me, the 23rd, 24th, 25th of October, -- I was in England, in my mind -- I was with members of that whole company as their lines were overrun. People that I knew were shot at close range and injured, you know, I broke my leg on the next day having to get down a mountain.
Raddatz: Seven miles, I heard about that.
Hetherington: It was pretty, pretty, pretty traumatic events for me. And here I was on a plane flying back to see the guy who was in over-watch that day when I had to get down the mountain. That he was in the platoon watching over us to make sure we got down safely, and then who himself went through a very traumatic event when he lost some of his best friends, and so the interview just had that kind of resonance and the meeting with him, it was kind of tinged with a lot of emotion.