WASHINGTON – Ambushed in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters who were carrying his mortally wounded friend away.
Three years after acts of battlefield bravery, Giunta on Tuesday became the first living service member from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to receive the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor. He's the first living medal recipient in nearly 40 years.
Far from the perilous ridge where his unit was attacked on a moonlit night in October 2007, Giunta stood in the glittering White House East Room, in the company of military brass, past Medal of Honor winners, his surviving comrades and families as President Barack Obama hung the blue ribbon cradling the medal around Giunta's neck.
"I'm going to go off script here and just say, 'I really like this guy," Obama said, calling him "a soldier as humble as he is heroic."
"When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about, and it just makes you proud."
For Giunta, the tribute was bittersweet. It was a bloody day in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and the two soldiers he rescued later died.
"Although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now," the 25-year-old from Hiawatha, Iowa, said afterward on the rain-soaked White House driveway.
Obama said Giunta "charged headlong into the wall of bullets." The sergeant at first pulled a soldier who had been struck in the helmet to safety, then sprinted ahead to find two Taliban fighters dragging away the stricken Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan.
"Sal never broke stride," Obama said. "He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off."
As bullets rained, Giunta dragged Brennan by his vest to cover and worked feverishly to stop the bleeding until the wounded Americans were flown from the ridge. Brennan and another platoon member, medic Hugo V. Mendoza, died. Five were wounded.
Forty-two Americans have died in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a deadly sliver of eastern Afghanistan that insurgents use to move weapons and fighters from Pakistan. U.S. troops pulled out of the perilous valley and other remote areas about seven months ago after commanders decided it was best to use forces to protect civilian population centers.
Despite years of clashes and airstrikes, U.S. and Afghan forces failed to subdue the Korengal Valley — one of the most staunchly anti-American regions in Afghanistan.
In June 2005, three Navy SEALs were killed when militants ambushed their four-man team. A helicopter sent to rescue the SEALs was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Sixteen American troops aboard were killed in what is one of the deadliest single attacks on the U.S. military since the war began in 2001.
On Oct. 25, 2007, Giunta — a rifle team leader with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment — and his comrades were heading single file down steep terrain when an insurgent ambush split the group into two. Apache gunships overhead saw what was happening but couldn't engage the enemy so close to U.S. soldiers. Another platoon heard the gunfire but was too far away to help.
The two lead men were struck by enemy fire. After a third went down from a bullet to his helmet, Giunta braved enemy fire to pull him to safety. Giunta was hit twice by rounds that struck his body armor and shattered the weapon slung across his back.
His unit regrouped, lobbing grenades and using the explosions to charge ahead until they reached one of the two lead men. Giunta then bolted forward, again ducking enemy fire, until he reached a hill, saw the insurgents taking away his friend and opened fire.
"It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience," Obama said.
The standards for earning the nation's highest military honor are so high that many recipients are only so honored for acts in which they died. Both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, had come under pressure because no living member from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars had been awarded a Medal of Honor. Seven from those wars have received the award posthumously.
Though Giunta's actions predate Obama's time in office, they took place during a war that's more closely identified as belonging to Obama, who has added tens of thousands of troops to the effort in Afghanistan.
As commander in chief, Obama ultimately approved the recommendation that Giunta receive the medal. The individual service secretaries recommend candidates for a Medal of Honor. Those recommendations work their way up through the military chain of command until eventually they are approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon and finally by the president.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.