The first living soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in a conflict since the Vietnam War will receive the award from President Obama in a White House ceremony, the White House announced Friday.
Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 25, will receive the nation's highest award for valor for rushing directly into enemy fire during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 2007, and pulling three wounded soldiers to safety, according to a Pentagon account. Giunta had been knocked down by a bullet that slammed into a thick plate of his body armor, but recovered in time to fire his automatic rifle and hurl a grenade at the attackers.
Giunta first rescued two soldiers who had been wounded during the ambush along a wooded ridgeline in the rugged Korengal Valley in Kunar province, according to the Pentagon account. He then spotted two insurgents attempting to haul off a wounded American paratrooper and opened fire, forcing them to abandon the soldier and retreat.
"His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands," the White House said in a statement.
Obama telephoned Giunta, who is stationed with an airborne unit in Vicenza, Italy, on Thursday to thank him for "acts of gallantry at the risk of his life that went above and beyond the call of duty," the statement said.
The Pentagon cited Giunta's "unwavering courage, in the midst of an ambush in which two American paratroopers gave their lives and several more were wounded."
The wounded paratrooper rescued by Giunta, who applied emergency medical aid to try to keep him alive, later died of his wounds, according to the Pentagon.
Giunta is the eighth service member to receive the Medal of Honor during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. The other medals were awarded posthumously.
By contrast, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded for gallantry in World War II and 246 during the Vietnam War. A study by the Army Times last year found that there were two to three Medals of Honor awarded for every 100,000 service members during the earlier wars, compared with one in 1 million for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The disparity has led some members of the military and veterans' groups to complain that current troops are held to unfair standards. The awards process was tarnished in 2004 when Pat Tillman, a popular former NFL football player, was awarded a posthumous Silver Star after he was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials were accused of covering up the friendly fire that killed Tillman by creating a false account of heroism to justify the award.
The Korengal Valley has been one of the deadliest battlefields in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, who struggled to win the trust of local Afghans while a road was under construction to link the valley — just six miles long — to the rest of eastern Afghanistan. The troops operated from a remote outpost that regularly came under Taliban attack.
The isolated valley, home to tribesmen suspicious of outsiders, ultimately proved too costly to defend. In April, commanders in Afghanistan decided to shut down the mission in the valley after more than 40 U.S. service members died there over a five-year period.
Giunta, a 22-year-old specialist during the 2007 ambush, described his attempts to save paratrooper Sgt. Joshua Brennan to Elizabeth Rubin, who wrote an account of the battle in New York Times Magazine. He described killing one insurgent and chasing off the other as he rescued the badly wounded Brennan.
"He was still conscious. He was breathing. He was asking for morphine," Giunta told Rubin. "I said, 'You'll get out and tell your hero stories,' and he was like, 'I will, I will.' "
The battle is also described in the book "War" by Sebastian Junger.
"I didn't run through fire to save a buddy," Giunta told Junger. "I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn't run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done."
Giunta, of Hiawatha, Iowa, is a member of Company B, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, serving as a rifle team leader. He has served two tours in Afghanistan and has been awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
The White House did not announce a date for the award ceremony.
On Thursday, the White House announced that the president will award a posthumous Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, a Green Beret from Harrisburg, Pa., for displaying "immeasurable courage" when drawing enemy fire during a Jan. 25, 2008, battle in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.