On the night of October 25, 2007, Spc. Salvatore Giunta watched his comrades go down in a hail of machine-gun fire and grenades from a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. Giunta ran into the bullets and shrapnel to repulse the ambush. Two enemy rounds found him, lodging in his armor and destroying one of his weapons. When he discovered his friend Sgt. Josh Brennan was missing, he kept running… right into enemy territory. He found a couple of Taliban fighters dragging his wounded buddy away, and promptly helped one of them discover if that 72-virgin offer is the real deal. The only enemy Giunta could not defeat on the battlefield that night was Death, which came for Sgt. Brennan despite his best efforts.
Salvatore Giunta is a Staff Sergeant now, and also a humble man, who calls October 25 the saddest day of his life. In addition to Sgt. Josh Brennan, he lost another good friend that night, squadron medic Spc. Hugo Mendoza. He told Fox News he did “no more than every single service member in the United States military today.” A grateful nation has over-ridden his modesty to award him the Medal of Honor, which President Obama bestowed upon him today in a White House ceremony.
Staff Sgt. Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. His ceremony comes in the same week we commemorate the Battle of Ia Drang, the first major battle between the United States and the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1965. This is the battle portrayed in Lt. General Hal Moore’s book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. In the film adaptation, Moore was played by Mel Gibson, who was an actor once, and popular. The book and movie are among a relative handful of attempts to portray the conspicuous gallantry on display in the Vietnam War, which is more commonly depicted as a psychedelic slaughterhouse filled with psychotic soldiers and opposed by noble hippies.
Moore was a lieutenant colonel when he led the 7th Cavalry Regiment into battle against an enemy who outnumbered them more than ten to one. It was George Armstrong Custer’s old unit. They had learned to ride helicopters instead of horses. Colonel Moore couldn’t promise to bring all his men home alive, but he swore before “almighty God” that he would be “the first to set foot on the battlefield, and the last to step off.”
234 American soldiers died in the valley of Ia Drang, between the 14th and 18th of November. Moore told his men it was “the valley of the shadow of death.” The Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, where Spc. Salvatore Giunta and his platoon were ambushed, was also known as “The Valley of Death.” The timeless heroism of the soldiers who followed Col. Moore down to Landing Zone X-Ray is still alive and well, and walks the hills of Afghanistan, as well as the streets of Iraq.
At the website of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, you may learn the stories of the men, living and dead, who won this honor in Vietnam. It is a priceless treasure trove of courage… a treasure we have denied our youth for too long, by allowing them to believe in a lazy caricature of the Vietnam War. Last May, they got to watch a Family Guy episode where an animated Vietnamese soldier called the Vietnam War memorial a “scoreboard” and told a couple of vets, “Hey, I know that guy! I killed him! He cried like a bitch. Vietnam! Undefeated!”
All the news reports about Staff Sgt. Giunta’s richly deserved honor have taken pains to mention the previous living winners came from the Vietnam War. It would do great honor to Giunta and his fallen friends if we took this opportunity to learn more about those earlier heroes. A mighty battle was fought against the awful darkness of communism 45 years ago this week. The deeds of valor from the Vietnam War echo through our history, if we take the time to listen for them. Sgt. Giunta serves in a different regiment, the 503rd Infantry of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), but he belongs to the same eternal brotherhood.