"Everything slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less.
I did what I did because that's what I was trained to do."
On Tuesday, November 16, 2010, the President of the United States is going to award the first Medal of Honor to a living recipient since the Vietnam War.
Only seven Medals of Honor have been issued since 'Nam, and until now all of them were presented posthumously. This is pretty understandable considering that Medal of Honor-grade heroism generally involves putting your life on the line and charging headfirst into certain death in order to save your comrades from an otherwise-unsurvivable situation, but three years ago, one man – Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta – faced ridiculous morale-shattering odds like that and lived to tell the tale. And though he would never probably admit it, this guy is about as seriously badass as they come.
Like many other great badasses from history, Giunta's story starts from pretty humble beginnings. A former Subway sandwich artist (note: this isn't a pejorative dig or anything – this is the official terminology the company uses to describe its employees) from a presumably-boring suburban Iowa town of about 6,500 people, Giunta eventually decided that customer service jobs suck balls so he left the restaurant business to serve his country as a soldier. He enlisted in the Army, then went through paratrooper jump school, joined the 173rd Airborne, and served in two combat tours in Afghanistan. While busting faces up and down the untamed warzones of Central Asia, he received a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for being wounded in the line of duty. I wasn't able to dig up any information regarding the circumstances surrounding those medals, but knowing what we know about Giunta I think it's probably safe to say he received those medals for injuring his hand while punching a Taliban fighter's brain out through the back of his head, then using the disembodied brain to crush the spines of a pack of rabid grizzly bears.
The action that earned this ultra-hardcore soldier the Medal of Honor took place in October 2007, when then-Specialist Giunta was serving as a rifle team leader during a ridiculously dangerous mission through the Korengal Valley. Better known to the Americans as "The Valley of Death", Korengal was basically like one giant miserable hellhole filled with heavily-entrenched, well-armed insurgent fighters ready to pop out at every corner and launch a shit-ton of RPGs at anything that even kind of looked like it had a stars and stripes on it. For five years, the Americans had been trying to clear this region of resistance without a hell of a lot of luck – even a few days before Giunta was marching through there a Taliban force had overrun an American platoon, forcing the U.S. troops to fall back to more defensible positions, and all attempts at clearing out the region with air-to-ground ordinance somehow proved unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team was sent in to check it out, and even though the mission was tough these guys weren't exactly the sort of badasses who were going to back down from anything. It was the dark hours of early morning when the men of the 173rd were walking single-filed along a rocky ridge, somewhat comforted by the reassuring sound of Apache gunships circling above. They'd already been through several days of brutal fighting, and were just ready for the mission to be over so they could go back to base and chill out for a while. Unfortunately, they'd have no such luck on this mission. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the American squad found itself in the middle of a well-crafted precision ambush by a heavily-armed enemy. Dozens of Taliban fighters armed with heavy tripod-mounted machine guns, sniper rifles and RPGs opened fire on the U.S. column from two sides in what's known as an "L-Shaped Ambush" – one weapons team fired its MG straight down the American line while a curtain of tracer fire enfiladed he paratroopers from their flanks. One second these guys were walking home, and the next they were in the middle of the fucking Charge of the Light Brigade, being hammered from two sides by a ridiculous amount of weapons fire from an extremely close range.
|"There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky. A wall of bullets at every one at the same time with one crack and then a million other cracks afterwards. They’re above you, in front of you, behind you, below you. They’re hitting in the dirt early. They’re going over your head. Just all over the place. They were close — as close as I’ve ever seen." |
In terms of modern combat, going face-to-face with a couple dozen heavy MGs at a range of little more than twenty feet is seriously about as bad as it can possibly get. At this distance the overwhelming American advantages of extreme air support, superior weapons range and accuracy, and night vision capabilities are all basically useless. For all of their hellfire rockets and heavy weapons, the Apache helicopters circling overhead were helpless to protect the infantrymen – anything inside about a hundred meters is considered "Danger Close", meaning that opening fire on the enemy is hazardous to your own allies as well, and the Taliban were roughly one-tenth of that range from the Americans. The infantry was on its own in an incredibly dangerous situation. The cavalry wasn't coming in to save the day this time.
Surprised in the open and outnumbered three-to-one, every single man in the 8-person paratrooper squad was hit by gunfire almost immediately. The lead sergeant took eight rounds, the medic was mortally wounded in the leg, and Specialist Giunta took a round in the armor plate that knocked him flat on his back. Somehow able to keep it together despite an insanely-deadly situation, Giunta reacted instinctively, popping up to his feet and scrambling for the closest thing that even kind of resembled serviceable. He got down off the ridge, ducked behind the edge of the road, and returned fire on the enemy.
Seconds after landing behind cover, however, he noticed his Staff Sergeant's head snap back awkwardly. He'd taken a bullet to the helmet. The sarge had barely hit the ground when Giunta – despite all human instinct to, you know, not be standing in the open while twenty guys with machine guns completely paint the atmosphere surrounding you with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades - got the fuck up out of cover and ran over to help his buddy. Somewhat amazingly, the sarge was so impossibly hardcore that a bullet to the helmet only kind of dazed him a little, and by the time Giunta and another rifleman reached him the guy was already back on his feet blasting M4 rounds at those motherfuckers who had dared to try to screw with him.
With three guys now together, Salvatore Giunta astutely noticed that the Taliban were trying to divide and conquer the Americans, using heavy weapons to divide the squad in half so that they could split the group and deal with each element individually. Fuck that. So, flanked on two sides by screaming enemy soldiers desperately attempting to pin them down with a seemingly endless stream of bullets, Salvatore Giunta and his two allies did what their assailants least expected – they charged.
"They brought the fight. We'll bring the pain."
The strategy was simple enough – hit the dirty, lay down suppressing fire, throw grenades. As soon as the explosion goes off, get up and run. Keep moving. Keep firing. Wash, rinse, repeat. Using grenades and rifle fire to pin down the enemy, the Americans launched their daring, balls-out counter-attack on an entrenched force three times larger than their own. They pressed forward, chucking a ridiculous number of grenades, and quickly came across the squad machine gunner. The paratrooper was on his back trying to clear a jam in his SAW, barely able to stand because of the two bullets lodged in his leg. The team stayed with the injured gunner, but Giunta pressed on, firing and throwing grenades. Unable to be stopped by conventional weapons, this guy kept charging through the ambush looking for the rest of the team.
What he discovered only made him even more pissed off. The balls-out Specialist was moving forward, when he saw his squad leader – badly wounded with eight gunshot wounds – being carried off by two Taliban motherfuckers.
No way. Not on this guy's watch.
Giunta rushed forward, burning through the rest of his magazine, shooting the holy living shit out of the two Afghan fighters in front of him. One dropped to the floor with at least 5.56 millimeters of lead in him. The other dude, seeing the ultra-pissed-ness of Salvatore Giunta coming screaming towards him, wisely dropped the wounded American and ran for it. He didn't want any of that.
Giunta reached the sergeant, administered some emergency first aid, and carried the badly-wounded man back to safety. Having now re-assembled the team through his own sheer inability to feel fear, Giunta had reorganized the squad so that it could fight a tactical withdrawal and escape the ambush. As soon as the rifle team was out from Danger Close range, a group of Apaches and Specters lit the place up. Giunta and his squad had to walk a few more miles on foot back to safety. He carried his sergeant the whole way.
Salvatore was informed in September that he will be receiving the Medal of Honor for his brave actions in the Korengal Valley that night. His first reaction was, somewhat interestingly to say, "fuck this bullshit". As far as this guy is concerned, every man out there that day – and every soldier he's ever fought alongside for that matter – deserves to be known as heroes, because everyone out there goes above and beyond every single day. Perhaps that's not a bad message to keep in mind during Veteran's Day weekend, though for what it's worth I think I would argue that what Salvatore Giunta did out there was some seriously next-level shit. Were it not for his bravery, his entire team might have been killed, and his sergeant would have been taken into the hands of the Taliban.
Luckily, Salvatore Giunta was too badass to let that happen.
|"I want to stress the fact that this is the nation’s highest honor. Awesome. And it’s given to me, but just as much as me, every single person that I’ve been with deserves to wear it — they are just as much of me as I am. This isn’t a one-man show. I’m here because someone picked me. I hope that everyone around me can share in whatever pride that comes from it. They deserve that pride."|
Interview with Vanity Fair
White House Press Release
Army Times Story
Excerpt from Sebastian Junger's Book War
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