JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight; an act of extraordinary bravery in Afghanistan honored at the White House today. Ray Suarez has that story.
RAY SUAREZ: In a remote part of Eastern Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta risked his own life to stop insurgents from kidnapping another wounded soldier. A citation was read aloud describing Giunta’s gallantry in action.
MILITARY AIDE: Specialist Giunta’s unwavering courage, selflessness and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy.
RAY SUAREZ: Today, President Obama awarded Giunta the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for bravery beyond the call of duty.
RAY SUAREZ: Giunta is only the fourth recipient from the war in Afghanistan and the first living recipient of the medal from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is my privilege to present our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to a soldier as humble as he is heroic, Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta.
Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say I really like this guy.
BARACK OBAMA: When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about. And it just makes you proud.
And so this is a joyous occasion for me, something that I have been looking forward to. Yes, the Medal of Honor reflects the gratitude of an entire nation.
RAY SUAREZ: In October 2007, Giunta, an Iowa native, was stationed in the Korengal Valley, among the most dangerous places in Afghanistan for American troops. ABC News was with the Army in Korengal during the fighting, but didn’t capture Giunta in action. Giunta’s unit was trapped by Taliban fighters in a maneuver called an L-shaped ambush.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA, Medal of Honor Recipient: So, this group would open fire and draw all the attention from all these people, because you want to eliminate the threat. And then, once everyone focuses here, this group comes down and kind of sweeps through or shoots down this way, so everyone gets hit from the side or from the front.
RAY SUAREZ: He pulled injured soldiers to safety. Then, Giunta moved to aid his badly wounded friend, Sergeant Joshua Brennan. Giunta saw two insurgents dragging Brennan away.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: I don’t think anyone knew exactly what was happening. I think everyone just kind of reacted, and then started figuring out as things went.
RAY SUAREZ: But that’s what training is supposed to do, right?
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: That’s exactly what it is supposed to do. You don’t have to do the thinking. You just have to do the reacting. And that’s what everyone there did that night.
RAY SUAREZ: He tossed his last grenade, emptied his rifle, and chased the insurgents down a hill. Giunta killed one fighter and injured the other, who released Brennan and ran. Still taking fire, Giunta pulled Brennan to cover. Brennan later died in surgery at a nearby base.
For his own part, Salvatore Giunta still wears the label hero uneasily. It’s just one of the many things the young Iowan is still getting used to. We talked with Staff Sergeant Giunta this morning, before the ceremony.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: I know heroes. I have met heroes. I have met some of the bravest people in the entire world. And I have had the privilege to serve with them. I have had the privilege to serve with them.
And when someone comes and says, you know, “Hey, you know, you’re the man; congratulations; you’re an American hero,” I just take it in stride, and I think about all my heroes and all the people I look up to and all the people who have given so much and taught me so much.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, since you know those people, and you have admired those people, maybe part of your job now is to be that person to somebody else, no?
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: I guess, if that’s the role that I’m cast in, I will play that role to best of my ability.
RAY SUAREZ: But Giunta returns again and again to his lost brothers in arms.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: It’s strange when someone comes and congratulates me. And I have to — of course, OK. This is — this is very good. This is very positive. This is for a lot of things.
And it brings back instantly the memory of Specialist Hugo Mendoza, Sergeant Joshua Brennan, and think, you know, that is who needs to be congratulated, and they’re not here to take this congratulations.
They gave every single one of their tomorrows. And I’m the one that they’re going to pat on the back and thank and give a hug? It’s — it’s difficult sometimes.
RAY SUAREZ: The action that you’re being decorated for, that you’ve come into this situation for, you put yourself on the line for those men, didn’t you?
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: A soldier is not being a soldier for themselves. They’re being a soldier for the people around them, for the men and women to the left and to the right, the ones that are showing them, leading them in front, and for the people that will follow them behind.
No one out there was in it for themselves. Everyone acted for each other.
RAY SUAREZ: So, this recognition gives you an opportunity to talk about Brennan and Mendoza?
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: It does. I think this represents all those unsung heroes that deserve this so much. This is for them. I — I can’t wear this for myself.
The — the president of the United States will give me the Medal of Honor, and I will wear it for every single one of the service members that I have ever served with.
RAY SUAREZ: Have you thought about what happens to you now? I mean, this — this must be, and, on some levels, an overwhelming thing. Few men get to wear this decoration.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: It’s a lot to take in still.
You know, when I found out, it had almost been three years after the incident. And now, in the last two months, it’s kind of been a whirlwind of a lot of different things, and a lot of different emotions, and a lot of cameras and lights. But it can’t sink in yet. It’s still just kind of hanging in there in my mind.
RAY SUAREZ: Have you thought about the ways your life will change, because, from now on, you’re not just Salvatore Giunta? You’re a Medal of Honor winner. You will be referred to that way. You will be listed in everything you are listed in. It’s sort of become part of your name now.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: My parents will still call me Sal. My friends will still call me Sal. I’m still Sal. It — it — I don’t know how else to take it.
I mean, like I said, it — it’s attached to my name, but the people who know me know that this is for all of — all of them and for myself. I got a whole bunch of buddies downstairs. And it’s awesome to see them and to have, you know, all the people I have served with in the last seven years come from all around the world to come to Washington, D.C., and be part of this, and share this with myself and my family.
And it’s truly incredible.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, thank you for that day. Thank you for service in general. And congratulations.
STAFF SGT. SALVATORE GIUNTA: Thank you, sir.