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Medal of Honor Recipient Tells His Story

By Amanda Morad | November 13, 2012

Medal of Honor winner, Sal Giunta
Photo by Alex Perry

A valiant leader, former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta was presented with the United States' highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor—for his heroic actions during combat in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. He spoke before more than 330 guests at Regent University's Executive Leadership Series luncheon on Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Giunta told the story of events leading up to the night his bravery earned him the Medal of Honor, and a few insights he learned from his superiors along the way.

"Everything can be taught through push-ups," he quipped. Giunta was 16 on 9/11 and remembers the great anger and compulsion to act that he felt when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "All of a sudden this tragic accident turned into an act of war," he said. But by the time he was old enough to enlist and first met an Army recruiter at 18, all that motivated Giunta was the free t-shirt. He left with no intention of enlisting. Just 10 days later, Guinta decided he was ready for the "adventure" of military life.

"At 18, I wasn't productive, I was just excited," he said. "What I didn't realize is that being in the military is not like playing a sport where you train for a week, perform on a weekend, go back and train and try and correct your strategy. War takes time and patience and incredible amounts of training for situations that may or may not ever occur."

During his first assignment in Italy, Giunta's staff sergeant pushed their squad to be the most tactically adept, well-trained team there and taught his guys to always lead by example. "A leader does exactly that," Giunta said. "He told us, 'I will never tell you what to do, I will show you what to do.'"

He also learned a sense of camaraderie and trust through that squad. "By not caring about the individual and committing to care for the guys beside you more than yourself, those guys have made the same commitment, so that means you're being looked out for by two people, not just one," Giunta explained. This mentality is what gets soldiers through long and difficult deployments, he added.

During his first tour of Afghanistan, Giunta realized that war wasn't exactly what he expected. "There's a very heavy cost of war and it's not just a financial one," he explained. "It's lives forever changed." There were low points of that first deployment for Giunta, but it was his leadership who helped to pull him up. One sergeant reminded him, "The minute we start thinking about ourselves, we've got our eyes on the wrong guy."

Teaching like this helped prepare Giunta for his second deployment, during which occurred the toughest mission of his life, Oct. 25, 2007. The squad had sat all day, watching and waiting for another unit to complete a retrieval mission. When Giunta's unit was ambushed and pinned down by Taliban fighters on the trek back to camp, he was hit twice while running into enemy fire to pull his fellow soldiers to cover.

When insurgents began carrying away an injured sergeant, Giunta engaged the enemy, provided medical aid to his wounded comrade and ultimately saved the soldier from being captured. His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to the team's survival and led to his selection as the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

"That is not an unusual day," he said humbly. "It wasn't an unusual mission. It's what men and women do every single day. For me to be in front of you today seems inappropriate because I didn't do anything another soldier would not have done."

Giunta concluded his story with a challenge to the audience. "Do something tomorrow for someone else that you wouldn't normally do," he said. "Every day we wake up is a blank slate full of opportunity. We are all capable of doing anything we want! Is what you're doing bringing positive change to those around you?"

Giunta was honorably discharged from the Army in June 2011, and his memoir, Living with Honor, will be released in early December.

Held each month, ELS brings together businessmen and women in Hampton Roads to hear from business and leadership experts. Learn more about ELS and register for next month's luncheon on Tuesday, Dec. 11.


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