Image: Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta of the U.S. Army Tuesday in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Giunta is receiving the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions during combat in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan in October 2007. Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
updated 11/16/2010 7:36:57 PM ET 2010-11-17T00:36:57

Ambushed in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters who were carrying his mortally wounded friend away.

Three years after that act of battlefield bravery, Giunta on Tuesday became the first living service member from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to receive the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor.

Far from the perilous ridge where his unit was attacked on a moonlit night in October 2007, Giunta stood in the glittering East Room, in the company of military brass, past Medal of Honor winners, his surviving comrades and families as President Barack Obama hung the blue ribbon cradling the medal around Giunta's neck.

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"I'm going to go off script here and just say, 'I really like this guy," Obama said, calling him "a soldier as humble as he is heroic.

"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."

Story: A medal's burden: Honoring unheralded heroes

For Giunta, the tribute was bittersweet, because it was a bloody day in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and the soldier he brought back later died.

"I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now," he said on the rain-soaked White House driveway afterward.

Obama told the audience that Giunta "charged headlong into the wall of bullets." The sergeant at first pulled a soldier who had been struck in the helmet back to safety, then sprinted ahead to find two Taliban fighters taking the stricken Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan away.

"Sal never broke stride," Obama said. "He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off."

As bullets rained, Giunta dragged Brennan by his vest to cover and worked feverishly to stop the bleeding until the wounded Americans were flown from the ridge. Brennan and another platoon member, medic Hugo V. Mendoza, died. Five were wounded.

Forty-two Americans died in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a deadly sliver of Afghan real estate that insurgents use to move weapons and fighters from Pakistan. U.S. troops pulled out of the perilous valley and other remote areas about seven months ago when commanders decided it was best to use forces to protect civilian population centers.

Despite years of clashes and airstrikes, U.S. and Afghan forces failed to subdue the Korengal Valley — one of the most staunchly anti-American regions in Afghanistan.

In June 2005, three Navy SEALs were killed when their four-man team was ambushed by militants. A helicopter sent to rescue the SEALs was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Sixteen American troops aboard were killed in what is one of the deadliest single attacks on the U.S. military since the war began.

On Oct. 25, 2007, Giunta, a rifle team leader with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, and his comrades were heading single file down steep terrain when an insurgent ambush split the group into two. Apache gunships overhead saw what was happening but couldn't engage the enemy so close to U.S. soldiers. Another platoon heard the gunfire but was too far away to help.

The two lead men were struck by enemy fire. After a third went down from a bullet to his helmet, Giunta stepped into the line of fire to pull him to safety. Giunta was hit twice by rounds that struck his body armor and shattered the weapon slung across his back.

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Giunta's unit regrouped, lobbing grenades and using the explosions to charge ahead until they reached one of the two lead men. Giunta then bolted forward, again ducking enemy fire, until he reached a hill, saw the insurgents taking away his friend and opened fire.

Every member of the platoon ended up with shrapnel or a bullet hole in his gear.

"It had been as intense and violent a fire fight as any soldier will experience,' Obama said.

The standards for achieving the nation's highest military honor are so high that many recipients are only so honored for acts in which they died. Both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, had come under pressure because no living member from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars had been awarded a Medal of Honor. Seven from those wars have received the award posthumously.

Though Giunta's actions predate Obama's time in office, they took place during a war that's more closely identified as Obama's, as he has added tens of thousands of troops to the war effort.

As commander in chief, Obama ultimately approved the recommendation that Giunta receive the medal. The individual service secretaries recommend candidates for a Medal of Honor. Those recommendations work their way up through the military chain of command until eventually they are approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon and finally by the president.

___

AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Inspired by a hero, Obama goes off-script

  1. Transcript of: Inspired by a hero, Obama goes off-script

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: to turn now to what happened at the White House today. The president awarded the Medal of Honor , this nation's highest military decoration , to a young staff sergeant who's already a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan . When we met him in Washington yesterday, Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta told me he remembers the night a few years ago when he was mopping up at the Subway restaurant where he worked. He heard a radio commercial about a free T-shirt giveaway by Army recruiters at the local shopping mall the next day. He went to the mall. He got his T-shirt and he listened to them. He then went home and broke it to his parents that an Army career appealed to him. Well, fast forward to today. Sal Giunta was hailed by President Obama as the very best shining example of the US Armed Forces .

    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 .

    WILLIAMS: And with that, a modest 25-year-old soldier from Hiawatha , Iowa , joined a long line of this nation's very best, dating back to the Civil War .

    Pres. OBAMA: I'm going to go off script here for a second and just say, I really like this guy.

    WILLIAMS: Giunta 's act of valor took place during a fierce fire fight in Afghanistan 's remote Korengal Valley . His platoon was pinned down when he saw two insurgents carrying off his mortally wounded sergeant. Giunta ran into the oncoming fire. He killed one insurgent, wounded the other, and dragged his friend to cover. Sergeant Joshua Brennan later died following the fire fight that left two Americans dead and five wounded.

    Staff Sergeant SALVATORE GIUNTA: The thing that I did, that is so well documented now and so talked about over and over again, I was only able to do that because everyone else was doing everything they could. I -- there was nothing else for me to do but that. If I didn't do that, I would have been wrong.

    WILLIAMS: He is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in nearly 40 years. The last recipient who was alive to receive the nation's top military honor served during the Vietnam War .

    Pres. OBAMA: This medal today is a testament to his uncommon valor, but also to the parents and the community that raised him, the military that trained him, and all the men and women who served by his side.

    WILLIAMS: And when the president places the medal around your neck, you will, in fact, feel that you're wearing it for a whole bunch of guys. And you'll get there mentally, but I guess you realize that's the journey you have to be on now.

    Staff Sgt. GIUNTA: It's all kind of fallen into place that way, but there's no way I can wear the Medal of Honor for myself. I can't. It's too big for me. I can't bear that myself. It's not for me. If I'm going to be the one that's up there and gets it, that's fine. But by no means is that mine. I'm just the one there at that time. It's for all these people from Iraq and Afghanistan . All of these unsung heroes.

    WILLIAMS: What an incredible young man. The last seven Medal of Honor recipients , by the way, were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan . As of today , Sergeant Giunta becomes the 87th living recipient of the Medal of Honor . We'll take

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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