For Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent, retelling his story isn’t easy

Amid new­found fame, Sal Gi­unta’s mind is still on the friends he lost

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SHARON CO­HEN

chicago — It was years in the mak­ing, so Staff Sgt. Sal Gi­unta had time to talk with his wife about the “what if ” ques­tion. He’d been rec­om­mended for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s high­est mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tion. If cho­sen, his name would be in head­lines. His face in the spot­light. He’d be a celebrity.

And again and again, he’d have to tell strangers the har­row­ing story of a deadly am­bush in Afghanistan.

“He was wor­ried,” says Gi­unta’s wife, Jenny. “He didn’t know how he was go­ing to be able to talk to peo­ple about it. He couldn’t even talk to me. He didn’t even talk to his par­ents about it. How was he go­ing to talk to the world about it? How was he go­ing to be okay with telling his story?”

Gi­unta was awarded the medal. And, as ex­pected, he’s be­come a celebrity with all the trap­pings: A cer­e­mony at the White House. Praise from the pres­i­dent. Ap­pear­ances on the “Late Show With David Let­ter­man” and “ The Col­bert Re­port.” In­vi­ta­tions ga­lore. And calls, too, for him to tell his story.

Yet in a “ look at me” world, Gi­unta has re­mained de­cid­edly hum­ble. The 25-year-old sol­dier from Hi­awatha, Iowa — the first liv­ing re­cip­i­ent of the Medal of Honor for ser­vice in any war since Viet­nam — would have you be­lieve there’s noth­ing spe­cial about brav­ing rocket-pro­pelled grenades, ma­chine guns and a wall of bul­lets to help one com­rade, then free an­other from the clutches of the Tal­iban.

“I’m not a very smart guy,” he re­cently told a crowd, many of them vets, gath­ered to see him at an ar­mory out­side of Chicago. “I haven’t guided my­self to the po­si­tion I’m in. I’ve been men­tored. I’ve been tu­tored. I’ve been taught along the way. I’ve been told to fol­low. I’ve been told to lead.”

Ev­ery­where he goes, on pub­lic­ity tours or­ga­nized by the Army, Gi­unta por­trays him­self as an ev­ery­man, not a Su­per­man. That hasn’t stopped foot­ball and hockey fans from giv­ing him stand­ing ova­tions, crowds from lin­ing up for pho­tos, strangers from em­brac­ing him.

“ This isn’t me,” Gi­unta said in an in­ter­view. “As far as get­ting used to it, I don’t think I ever will.”

Since he re­ceived the medal in mid-Novem­ber, Gi­unta has come to re­al­ize that in­stant fame brings op­por­tu­ni­ties, pres­sures and sur­real mo­ments. His choice of lunch — an Ital­ian beef sandwich — now turns up in a gos­sip col­umn. He rubs shoul­ders with peo­ple he once watched on TV, peo­ple like bas­ket­ball Hall of Famer Scot­tie Pip­pen.

He’s a star at­trac­tion, the rea­son crowds come out on a bit­ter win­ter morn­ing, the rea­son he’s sit­ting be­fore a mi­cro­phone on an af­ter­noon ra­dio show. It’s his story they still want to hear — and telling it doesn’t get any eas­ier.

“I’ve never seen any­one else asked, ‘ What was the worst day in your life? And let’s break it down piece by piece, and please go into de­tail,’ ” he says. “For some rea­son, they con­tin­u­ally ask me ev­ery sin­gle day and mul­ti­ple times a day. Of course it’s dif­fi­cult. I lost two very good friends that day. They mean ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing [to me], and peo­ple brush by their names. And they keep say­ing, ‘Gi­unta. Staff Sergeant Gi­unta.’ That doesn’t feel right.”

The dead were Sgt. Josh Bren­nan and Spec. Hugo Men­doza. Both were on the mis­sion with Gi­unta as part of Com­pany B, 2nd Bat­tal­ion (Air­borne), 503rd In­fantry Reg­i­ment.

Gi­unta was tight with Bren­nan; they trained to­gether and trav­eled around Italy, where they were based. “He was ath­letic, smart, funny, al­ways some­one you could count on,” he says. As for Men­doza, a medic: “He truly cared about other peo­ple more than he did about him­self.”

It was a moon­lit night on Oct. 25, 2007, when en­emy forces formed an L-shaped am­bush around Gi­unta’s pla­toon in the Koren­gal Val­ley in east­ern Afghanistan, a dan­ger­ous strip of land that served as a key route for al-Qaeda to move weapons, fight­ers and money from Pak­istan.

Bren­nan and an­other sol­dier were hit first. When Staff Sgt. Erick Gal­lardo ran through an open area to link up with them, he was stopped by a bar­rage of gun­fire. Mov­ing to­ward Gi­unta, he was struck, a round from an AK-47 ding­ing off his hel­met and tem­po­rar­ily dis­ori­ent­ing him.

Gi­unta jumped up, ex­pos­ing him­self to rock­ets and en­emy fire, to help Gal­lardo. One bul­let then smashed into Gi­unta’s armor, push­ing him back. An­other shat­tered the weapon slung across his back. He didn’t stop. Gi­unta and his com­rades re­grouped, throw­ing grenades and charg­ing for­ward. When Gi­unta, who was a ri­fle team leader, re­al­ized that Bren­nan was missing, he raced ahead and saw two in­sur­gents car­ry­ing the wounded sergeant by his arms and legs.

Gi­unta, alone and with­out cover, shot and killed one of the in­sur­gents; the other ran away. Gi­unta dragged Bren­nan by the vest to safety. He tried to stop the bleed­ing, tried to com­fort his friend. Some­day, Gi­unta told the mor­tally wounded sol­dier, he’d be telling hero sto­ries.

Gal­lardo says he later told Gi­unta: “ You don’t un­der­stand . . . but what you did was pretty crazy. We were out­num­bered. You stopped the fight. You stopped them from tak­ing a sol­dier.”

“Un­be­liev­able what he did that night,” Gal­lardo added. “I know he’s go­ing to hate me for say­ing this, but he’s the face of the war now.”

In a White House cer­e­mony in Novem­ber, Pres­i­dent Obama her­alded Gi­unta’s “un­wa­ver­ing courage, self­less­ness and de­ci­sive lead­er­ship.”

Gi­unta, though, re­fuses to take credit for any ex­tra­or­di­nary feats. “I did my job and I did it to the best of my abil­ity,” he says. “I did what­ever ev­ery­one else did.”

Gi­unta knew soon af­ter the am­bush that he’d been rec­om­mended for the medal, and he’s had three years to pre­pare and re­flect on his fate.

“I don’t know if guilt is the right word,” says his wife, “ but he has a lot of ques­tions—‘Why was it me? Why did that have to hap­pen to Bren­nan and Men­doza? Why am I the one that’s there and I can talk to my fam­ily and I can see my wife?’”

Gi­unta wanted to make sure all the guys he served with re­ceived “enough re­spect,” Jenny Gi­unta says, but un­der­stood, too, that he could seize this once-in-al­ife­time moment to talk about some­thing big­ger — the sac­ri­fices of U.S. troops and their fam­i­lies.

So in ev­ery ap­pear­ance, he piv­ots from the Sal Gi­unta story to the big­ger pic­ture.

Amer­i­cans “can live their lives un­ham­pered by these wars be­cause there are peo­ple who will raise their right hand and say, ‘I will go to war for my coun­try,’ ” he says. “ They’re so for­tu­nate and they don’t even know it.”

Gi­unta’s hitch ends in Fe­bru­ary; he says he hasn’t de­cided whether he’ll stay in the Army, but ac­knowl­edges he’s been flooded with of­fers in and out of the mil­i­tary.

He is now part of an elite club of 87 liv­ing Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ents. Some have of­fered ad­vice — he de­clines to be spe­cific — but he vows to pass it along to the next medal re­cip­i­ent, which, he says, “will hope­fully be soon.”

He’s ea­ger to re­turn to Italy and to be­come just an­other sol­dier again. “ To go incog­nito and take a break — that’ll be nice,” he says.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Staff Sgt. Sal Gi­unta saluted as he en­tered the Iowa State­house for a cer­e­mony in his honor in Novem­ber.

LU­CAS JACK­SON/REUTERS

Gi­unta was a guest of honor dur­ing New Year’s Eve fes­tiv­i­ties in Times Square. “ This isn’t me,” he says of his new­found celebrity. “As far as get­ting used to it, I don’t think I ever will.”

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