Medal of Honor recipient Giunta visits MU

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 | 11:03 p.m. CST; updated 7:30 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Medal of Honor recipient Salvatore Giunta speaks to students during Veterans Week at Jesse Auditorium on MU's campus Tuesday. Giunta spoke about his experience in Afghanistan saving his fellow soldiers.

COLUMBIA — On the night Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta would earn his Medal of Honor, the bullets that flew through the air seemed to outnumber the stars.

Giunta repeatedly charged into a gunfight between his squad and Taliban insurgents to help one fallen soldier and then rescued another from being carried off by enemy hands.

But Tuesday night, Giunta told the audience of veterans, students and Columbia residents in Jesse Auditorium he was just one of many that were doing their duty that night in October.

"To me it seems ridiculous that I'm the only one standing here," Giunta said. "This period of time is a picture, and we all had a brushstroke. In no way, shape or form was my brushstroke the most amazing, the most beautiful, the most colorful."

When Giunta stepped out on stage, with the Medal of Honor around his neck shining in the light, he received a standing ovation.

Giunta, now 26, is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in either Iraq or Afghanistan. He is also the first surviving soldier to be given the award for actions in battle since the Vietnam war. 

Since the start of World War II, more than half of the recipients have been given the award posthumously. 

One day, while working at Subway in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Giunta heard the radio advertising free T-shirts to anyone who came to an Army recruiter.

Although his intent was only to receive a free T-shirt, Giunta took to heart what the military recruiter said about how he could make a difference and how he could be a part of something bigger than himself.

Giunta joined the Army in 2003 and attended the U.S. Army Airborne School before being deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in March 2005.

"I was ready to go to war," Giunta said.

His second deployment, from 2007 to 2008, sent him to the Korengal Valley near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan. It was nicknamed the "Valley of Death," for the high number of fatalities that occurred there. 

More than five months into his deployment, Giunta and his squad were headed back to their outpost the night of Oct. 25, 2007, when Taliban insurgents ambushed them. 

Shortly after, Squad Leader Erick Gallardo's helmet was shot.

"I saw a twitch. I kind of had a pretty good idea that I just watched my squad leader get shot in the head," Giunta said. "I ran forward to grab him, not because of any reason other than where he was at was a bad spot."

Giunta ran headlong through the bullets to get his squad leader back to safety, meanwhile receiving a shot to his own protective vest and to one of his weapons.

Gallardo was shaken up but not injured. The squad leader then assisted Giunta and two other soldiers by throwing grenades into the fray to cover their positions.

A few minutes later, Giunta spotted Sgt. Joshua Brennan, one of his close friends, being carried away by two members of the Taliban.

Giunta pursued the men, shooting one and making the other flee.

He then stayed with Brennan until help was able to evacuate him, but Brennan died later in surgery.  

During Giunta's Medal of Honor presentation on Nov. 16, 2010, President Barack Obama honored Brennan and every soldier that had died during the fight.

Giunta's talk, sponsored by the Department of Student Life, the Missouri Students' Association and Graduate Professional Council and the Missouri Student Veterans Association, was one of several events going on at MU and in Columbia for Veterans Week.

"To live through what he's lived through, and to have been through what he's been through, and still be a good person," said John Picray, vice president of the student veterans association. "It's indicative of his character."

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