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A humble soldier adjusts to fame

By SHARON COHEN
January 2, 2011

In this Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 file picture, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is applauded by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

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 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 OK with telling his story?”

Giunta did receive the medal. And, as expected, he’s become a celebrity with all the trappings: A celebration at the White House. Praise from the president. Late-night TV (Letterman and Colbert) appearances. Invitations galore. And calls, too, for him to tell his story — a story that forever changed his life.

Through it all, Sal Giunta has remained a humble man in a “look at me” world, quickly adjusting to his newfound fame, insisting he’s just an average soldier. The gold, five-point star draped around his neck says otherwise: He’s the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the first for actions since Vietnam.

The 25-year-old soldier 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. His mere presence in public is applauded. He rubs shoulders with people he once watched on TV, people like basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Giunta casts himself as an ambassador for everyone in uniform. Modestly, of course: “I’m representing so many people that I know for a fact are faster than me, smarter than me, stronger than me, braver than I am,” he says.

He knows, though, he’s the 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 Sgt. Giunta.’ That doesn’t feel right.”

The dead were Sgt. Josh Brennan and Spc. 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.” And, as a bonus: “He knew the best jokes.”

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-Qaida 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 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.

Why did Giunta do it? He said it was the logical next step, but in a recent Army interview, Gallardo said Giunta simply wanted to save his buddy. Brennan “would have done the same thing for me,” he quoted Giunta as saying.

Gallardo says he 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 Barack Obama heralded Giunta’s “unwavering courage, selflessness and decisive leadership.” (As an aside, he said of Giunta: “I really like this guy.”)

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 even sets himself apart from other Medal of Honor recipients, maintaining that his deeds don’t match their exploits. “Those people are like superhuman,” he says in the video. “I’m not that guy.”

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-a-lifetime 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.”

At times, Giunta can seem polished beyond his 25 years. He chooses his words carefully, speaks without a written text and stands ramrod straight in his dress blues. He’s patient and unfailingly polite as a long line of well-wishers greet him with hugs, a gift or two, and their own war stories.

He is, though, still a young man. So an occasional “dude,” “cool,” or “awesome” pop up in conversation, as does a sense of humor. After all these years, he says, he’s happy to have such an attentive audience.

“I’ve been talking my whole life and no one usually wants to hear what I want to say,” he says.

Salvatore Augustine Giunta didn’t plan on becoming a soldier. He was a rambunctious kid who liked to fool around and play golf_ he was good enough by 4th or 5th grade to play with adults. He got in his share of trouble as a teen and tended to wing it in school.

He was the kind of student, jokes his mother, Rosemary, who found school “somewhat interfered with his social life” and would head off to class in the morning when he had to give a speech without even choosing a topic. Or if he did, he’d carry note cards — but they were blank.

His father, Steve, says his son liked to push the envelope, saying life was more fun “in the gray area. The rub is,” the elder Giunta says with a laugh, “it was kind of a black area for his mother and me.”

“He had such a zest for life that he always wanted to hit it at 100 miles an hour,” Giunta’s father adds. “Many of those same traits . . . made him a great soldier.”

Giunta was still in high school mopping floors one night at his job at a Subway sandwich shop — he had decided against college — when he heard a recruitment commercial on radio. The lure: A free T-shirt. The catch: He had to listen to the pitch.

Giunta liked what he heard: He could get paid to jump out of planes, learn to shoot, run around in the woods, make friends, see the world and serve his country. “Those were things that, in a nutshell, really sounded good to me,” he says.

He got his T-shirt. And a plan for the next four years.

Giunta says he grew up during his first deployment to Afghanistan. Over one two-week period, his company lost five members. “I saw every single one of those people within two hours before and I saw them after they died.”

It changed his outlook on his life.

“At 18 years old, you think you can go out and conquer the world,” he says. “You’ve just trained for a year. You jump out of planes. You can shoot the targets you’re aiming at. You’re going to go there, you’re going to kick butt, you’re going to come back. Everything’s going to be OK and we’re going to move on . . . But in those two weeks, it just became apparent to me that’s not how it goes.”

Last spring, Giunta saw the aftermath of war from the other side: He escorted a fallen 19-year-old soldier home to Montana. Months later, he struggles to explain his feelings.

“That was probably one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in the military because there are so many things that you’re trained for,” he says, his voice trailing off . . . “and (you) don’t have words to express to the family.”

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

But his travels are not over. He appeared in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and later another leg of his publicity tour — to California — is planned.

Giunta’s schedule can take its toll. His mother says when she joined him in his recent visit to Washington, D.C., sometimes after standing in a long receiving line, he’d return to their minivan and quietly put his head down to decompress.

“He needs breathers,” she says. “He really does.”

She says she’s reminded her son he need not accept all the offers and invitations.

“I said, `Sal, there are so many doors opening for you,'” she recalls, “`but you don’t have to walk through every one.'”

Copyright © 2011 The Associate Press

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