EXCLUSIVE: 1st Living Medal of Honor Winner Since Vietnam Tells His Story

Army Staff Sergeant Commended for Valor in Afghanistan

September 13, 2010, 2:18 PM

Sept. 13, 2010 -- America's first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War says the heroic actions he undertook in Afghanistan are as brave as what every American soldier experiences day in and day out during their tours of duty in that country.

Last week, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was named as the first living recipient of America's highest medal for valor since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The previous seven awards have been posthumous.

In his first broadcast network interview since being named to receive the honor, Giunta told ABC News' Martha Raddatz that America's forces in Afghanistan act with "immense bravery" doing "above and beyond anything that should ever be asked of them."

The 25-year-old Giunta says the events of Oct. 25, 2007 are still too painful for him to discuss. "To tell the story about that day … hurts me," he told Raddatz. "It hurts to kind of go into it."

Though he would rather not discuss the details behind his heroic action, his story has been described by reporters embedded at the time with Giunta's unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Giunta's squad of eight soldiers was ambushed during a nighttime patrol in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, an area so dangerous to American troops it had become known as the "Valley of Death."

An Army specialist at the time, Giunta survived a bullet to the chest, but his life was saved by the protective body armor he was wearing. Under fire, Giunta immediately proceeded to recover two fellow soldiers wounded in the attack who had become separated from the main part of the squad. It was after this that Giunta saw two Taliban fighters dragging away the body of another wounded soldier, Sgt. Josh Brennan, who was also one of his closest friends.

Giunta threw grenades at the insurgents and after firing all his rounds forced them to drop Brennan to the ground. While under fire, he provided care to Brennan until medical help could arrive. Brennan did not survive his wounds nor did the squad's medic, Spec. Hugo Mendoza. Most of those on patrol that night suffered serious injuries.

In his interview with Raddatz, Giunta says he thinks about what happened that day "multiple times a day, I think about it every day…all the time."

He says "it hurts to kind of go" into the details, but says there are American soldiers in Afghanistan who are constantly "destroying the enemy with immense bravery." He adds that "every single one of them have gone above and beyond anything that should ever be asked of them and they're continuing to do it. They're doing it today. They'll do it tomorrow. They'll do it again."

Interviewed today by ABC News, Sgt. Brennan's father, Michael, says Giunta is "very humble " about what he did to save his son. He adds, "he's not a man that wants recognition for anything he did."

Brennan believes "there's such a tight bond and brotherhood with these paratroopers, and especially in this particular unit, the 173rd Airborne, that any of these guys would have done it for one another."

Giunta acknowledges that the bind that ties soldiers together is a strong motivator, "that's your brother in arms," he says. "That's who you're there with, that's who is fighting for you and with you."

Says Brennan, "I think that's what Sal knows in his heart is that he did this for Josh, but if the shoe were on the other foot…Josh would have done it for him."

Giunta's fellow soldiers of the 173rd Airborne are currently on another deployment to Afghanistan. A veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, Giunta is serving as part of the rear detachment that remained at the unit's home base at Camp Ederle, in northern Italy.

It was there that he received a personal phone call from President Obama last Thursday night to inform him that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor.

Even though he knew the call was coming, he said his heart was racing and that he was overwhelmed by the personal nature of the president's call.

"When you hear him, he's not addressing the nation, he's not addressing the world," he said. "He was talking to me. "

"he second I said 'Mr. President' everything just kind of stopped. … I don't know what happened after that. It was intense."

No date has been set for when President Obama will present the honor to Giunta. The Pentagon has received criticism from members of Congress that it has been reluctant to award the nation's highest award for valor for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did in previous conflicts. In World War II, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded, 133 during the Korean War and 246 for the war in Vietnam. Pentagon officials say the standards have not changed.

The six times that the Medal of Honor has been awarded for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan it has been done posthumously. The day before Giunta's announcement, the White House announced that there would be another posthumous recipient, Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller who died Jan. 25, 2008, giving up his life to save the lives of his fellow squadmates.

Earlier this year, NATO military commanders decided to abandon the remote outposts in the Korengal Valley as part of the new strategy to focus attention on protecting larger population centers in Afghanistan.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events