Image: Salvatore Giunta
Richard Bumgardner  /  AP
Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, Medal of Honor recipient.
By Military analyst
msnbc.com
updated 11/16/2010 10:55:52 AM ET 2010-11-16T15:55:52

One morning a little more than 41 years ago, four of us — all soldiers — marched with the president from the Oval Office into the blinding sunshine. We mounted a low platform on the South Lawn under a bright blue, cloudless sky, and during a short ceremony, we were presented with Medals of Honor by Richard M. Nixon.

One by one, a name and citation was read aloud, and then the president fastened a medal, hanging on a ribbon, around each neck. In just a few minutes our lives were forever changed.

Not much of the event is still clear to me. I vaguely recall that Nixon wore makeup and that he gave a major policy speech at the end of the ceremony. In the East Room, where we had gathered before the ceremony, the refreshments were stale. In the Oval Office, the president asked me if I was nervous, and I nervously said I wasn’t.

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But the one thing that I recall most vividly is that there were thousands of people standing on the grass to witness the event. That morning the gates to the South Lawn were thrown open, and absolutely anyone could enter the White House grounds and watch the ceremony.

Jack Jacobs' Newsvine blog

Government employees were excused from work to attend. There were people as far as I could see — thousands of them — pushed all the way back to the wrought iron fence that ringed the grounds. Security was a much different, much simpler affair back then. Today, you can’t drive or fly near the place, and pretty soon you won’t be able to walk anywhere near it either.

On Tuesday, Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta received a Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. He became the first living recipient since Vietnam to receive the honor for action in a war still being fought on foreign soil.

At 25 years old, he is less than half the age of the next oldest recipient, and he is so young that he could, in time, be the only one left alive.

The Daily Nightly: Profiles of Medal of Honor recipients

Dwindling numbers
Forty years ago, recipients gathered every other year for dinner. Among those at my first meal were Eddie Rickenbacker, the ace from World War I, and Bill Seach, who under rifle and machine gun fire charged the citadel at Beijing in 1900.

Many, like Jimmy Doolittle and Audie Murphy, were living legends and household names. They are, of course, all gone. When I was decorated, there were about 400 living holders of the Medal. Today, there are only 87.

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Giunta will bear many burdens, and one of them will be that he is the youngest in a line that stretches back to the Civil War, when the Medal of Honor was first awarded.

The weight of history is heavy, and it is heaviest for all those who feel strongly that, no matter how they are extolled, they were just doing what was expected of them.

Slideshow: Medal of Honor recipients (on this page)

Accepting for those who can't
All of us are acutely aware that the majority of medals are awarded to men who did not survive the actions for which they were cited — and so, we represent them by accepting this honor.

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We wear the award less for ourselves than for those who can’t: troops who fought valiantly, but whose actions weren't witnessed. Or whose actions were witnessed by warriors who were also killed. We wear it for those who were blinded, burned, maimed.

Video: Col. Jacobs' courage and sacrifice (on this page)

Giunta has already said that he was just doing his duty, that he didn't do anything extraordinary, that anyone else would have done the same thing. We hear the same from all veterans whose memories are filled with friends lost in the furnace of war.

Anyone who has spent time in close combat with an armed enemy knows that when our comrades’ lives are at stake valor becomes commonplace.

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Heroism will outlast media frenzy
There may be others from this war who will be similarly decorated, but for now Giunta is unique. His immediate life will not be unlike that of Roger Donlon, the first recipient of the Medal of Honor for combat in Vietnam in 1964. Because Giunta is the first living recipient in a generation, he will be the object of a ferocious media frenzy, and he is scheduled for a nearly unending series of appearances and interviews.

A nation that has grown tired of war, and is now largely ignorant of what its young people in uniform are doing, will have something novel on which to ruminate. His photo will be in newspapers and magazines, on the Web, everywhere. His face and his story will be familiar.

But only for a while. The hoopla will end, and the media and the nation will move on. Such is the path of a democracy in which the mantle of service is worn only by the honored few who feel its obligation. But when Salvatore Giunta’s name and face are no longer familiar, his example will still be the stuff from which freedom is made.

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Video: Jacobs: Medal of Honor salutes the fallen

Photos: Pre-9/11

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  1. George Sakato, 1921 –

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Sakato was a member of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans who had been classified as undesirable aliens – and it became the most decorated unit in the Army in World War II.” When his platoon was pinned down in France, Sakato rushed the enemy’s position. He killed 12, wounded two and captured four.

    With the exception of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the following images come from the book "Medal of Honor: Potraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty." Over 3000 people have received the honor; a selection of the recipients appear in the following slideshow.
    (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Joe Foss, 1915-2003

    As a captain, he led a Marine air unit (“Joe’s Flying Circus”) that shot down 72 Japanese planes. He downed 26 himself, tying a record set in World War I. Foss went on to serve as governor of South Dakota, commissioner of the American Football League, and president of the National Rifle Association. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Shot down four times in the five-week battle for Guadalcanal, Joe Foss was a fearless Marine fighter pilot who led attacks against superior forces of Japanese air formations.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Vernon Baker, 1919 – 2010

    His Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 1997 after a military study concluded racial discrimination prevented some World War II awards from being given. As a second lieutenant, Baker fought in Italy, advancing his platoon despite enemy fire and covering the evacuation of wounded soldiers by taking an exposed position. He also led a voluntary advance through a minefield. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs “Of his platoon of 25 men, only six survived the battle, and it was Baker’s leadership and individual courage that defeated the enemy.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bob Bush, 1926- 2005

    As a medical corpsman in the Navy, Bush tended to the injured in the battle of Okinawa in 1945. Despite a barrage of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire, Bush cared for the dying. Even after an eye injury, he fired a pistol and an abandoned carbine at the enemy to protect those around him. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jack Lucas, 1928 – 2008

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Lucas lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 13. At 14 he became an instructor.” As a private, Lucas fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. After an ambush, he flung himself on a grenade and threw another under himself to protect his comrades. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. John Finn, 1909-2010

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Roused from sleep by the attack, he raced to a nearby airfield and moved a machine gun into an exposed position, from which he shot at the attacking Japanese planes.” After receiving first aid, he returned to the squadron area and supervised the re-arming of returning planes during the Battle of Pearl Harbor. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lewis Millet, 1920 - 2010

    As an Army captain in the Korean War, Millett led his company in an attack against a strongly-held position. He was in front, with a fixed bayonet, throwing grenades and shouting encouragement to the men behind him. The assault was successful, and despite injury, Millet refused evacuation until his company's position was secure. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ronald Rosser, 1929 –

    During the Korean War, when this Army corporal found his men under fire from two directions, he turned his radio over to his assistant and charged the enemy positions armed with only carbine and a grenade. When he exhausted his ammunition, he returned through enemy fire to obtain more ammunition and grenades and charged the hill again. He returned three times to attack enemy positions. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tibor Rubin, 1929 -

    This Hungarian-born, Holocaust survivor was an Army rifleman during the Korean War. During one mission, he defended a hill for 24 hours under enemy fire, allowing his company to withdraw to safety. Rubin spent more than two years in a POW camp. Drawing on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, Rubin swiped food from Chinese and North Korean depots and distributed it among his comrades. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “He was recommended four separate times for the Medal of Honor, but did not receive it until 2005.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sammy Davis, 1946 –

    During Vietnam, Sgt. Davis’ gun crew came under attack. Despite violent recoils, blasts and injuries, he manned a machine gun to provide cover for his comrades. Then, he picked up an air mattress and struck out across a river to rescue wounded men on the other side. And he didn't know how to swim. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bernie Fisher, 1927 –

    During an attack on a special forces camp in Vietnam, Major Fisher observed a fellow airman crash land on an airstrip. Fisher landed his plane and taxied almost the full length of the runway, which was littered with debris and parts of an exploded aircraft. Despite heavy ground fire, he completed his rescue and was able to gain enough speed to take off successfully. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Roger Donlon, 1934 -

    During a pre-dawn attack on Camp Nam Dong, Capt. Donlon directed defense operations and aborted a breach of the main gate. Despite being wounded in his stomach, shoulder and leg, he crawled from position to position, retrieving weapons, ammunition and injured soldiers. He hurled grenades at the enemy and administered first aid to the wounded. He continued to move around the perimeter until a mortar shell wounded him in the face and body. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ed Freeman, 1927 - 2008

    As a flight leader of a helicopter lift unit, Cpt. Freeman supported an infantry battalion in Vietnam. When his landing zone was closed due to direct enemy fire, he flew his unarmed helicopter regardless, risking his life to deliver ammunition and supplies to the soldiers on the ground. He also provided life-saving evacuations to some 30 wounded men. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bob Howard, 1939 – 2009

    Howard was a platoon sergeant on a mission to rescue a missing soldier in Vietnam. He was wounded by a grenade explosion, but crawled through enemy fire to retrieve his injured platoon leader. He dragged him back to safety and rallied the soldiers to an organized defense. He then moved from position to position, tending to the injured. Howard supervised the loading of his men and did not leave the landing zone until all were in the air. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tom Norris, 1944

    As a Navy SEAL during Vietnam, Lt. Norris completed a ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. After rescuing the first man, Norris dressed as a fisherman and evacuated the second pilot – who he covered with bamboo and vegetation to evade enemy patrols. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Jack Jacobs, 1945 -

    Serving in Vietnam, Jacobs ordered a withdrawal from an exposed position and established a defensive perimeter after his battalion came under fire. Despite head wounds which impaired his vision, he returned under intense fire to evacuate a seriously wounded advisor. He then returned to evacuate his wounded company commander. Jacobs made repeated trips across the fire-swept rice paddies to evacuate the injured. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Clarence Sasser, 1947 -

    Serving as a medical aidman during a reconnaissance mission, Spc. Sasser ran across an open rice paddy through a hail of fire to assist the wounded in Vietnam. Refusing medical attention, he gave treatment and searched for wounded men. When injuries immobilized him, he dragged himself to tend to an ailing soldier. From a position of relative safety, he cared for a group of men for five hours until they were evacuated. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation
    Above: Slideshow (17) Medal of Honor recipients - Pre-9/11
  2. Image: William Swenson
    Alex Brandon / AP
    Slideshow (14) Medal of Honor recipients - Post-9/11

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