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For the first time in nearly four decades, a president has fastened the Medal of Honor around the neck of a living soldier during an ongoing war.
Today at the White House, President Obama honored Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 25, in part, for rescuing a comrade from the grips of Taliban fighters in one of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan in 2007.
"It is my privilege to present our nation's highest military award to a soldier as humble as he is heroic." The president then went off script and said, "I really like this guy."
Giunta, from Hiawatha, Iowa, then a specialist in Battle Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, helped fend off a close ambush by 15 Taliban fighters in the Korengal Valley. The Taliban fired hundreds of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades at the soldiers moving in a file.
"The two lead men were hit by enemy fire and knocked down instantly. When the third was struck in the helmet and fell to the ground, Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind what little cover there was, and as he did, Sal was hit twice," Obama said. "They were pinned down but two wounded Americans still lay up ahead."
After the squad advanced and formed a perimeter around one injured soldier, the squad realized their point man, Sgt. Joshua Brennan, was missing. "Sal sprinted ahead, at every step meeting relentless enemy fire with his own. He crested a hill alone with no cover at dusk," Obama said.
"There he saw a chilling sight: the silhouettes of two insurgents carrying the other wounded American away, who happened to be one of Sal's best friends," Obama said. Giunta took aim and shot down one insurgent, scared the other away and provided first aid to Brennan for 30 minutes.
The fighting was so fierce, each soldiers' gear was shot through or cut by shrapnel during the ambush. The squad suffered five casualties. Brennan and Sgt. Hugo Mendoza later died of their wounds.
Throughout his remarks, the president thanked the soldiers of Battle Company, Giunta's wife and parents, and Brennan's and Mendoza's families for their sacrifices.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Army Secretary John McHugh all attended the ceremony.
After the ceremony, Giunta, wearing jump boots, a maroon beret and his new gold and blue medallion, walked to a podium outside the West Wing and made a short announcement.
"I want to make it be known that this represents all services and all the branches that have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and Iraq since 2003, he said. "Although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now."
Seven soldiers have been awarded the Medal of Honor since 2001. Giunta is the 87th living recipient of the Medal of Honor.