On the morning of September 11, 2001, Sal Giunta was attending classes at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. On that same morning, about a thousand miles away from Cedar Rapids, commercial airliners were being intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. as well as a field in Pennsylvania.
News of the disaster eventually reached Sal and his classmates. He was stunned and bewildered by what he heard and he reacted on impulse. His primary concern was for the safety of his two young siblings. Upon leaving school, he went first to pick up his brother, Mario, from middle school and then his sister, Katie, from elementary school.
Once they had all arrived home safely, he seemed to relax. His mother was not surprised at her son’s behavior, since Sal was known for his natural inclination to be protective of his family and his friends.
“If the world falls part,” his mother said to him, “I guess we can count on you.” This simple act of picking up his siblings from school and bringing them safely home was a testament to his character.
Salvatore Augustine Giunta was born in Clinton, Iowa, on January 21, 1985, to an Italian-American family and grew up in Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, Iowa. His father, Steven, worked as a medical equipment technician, and his mother, Rosemary, a preschool teacher.
After graduating high school, Sal found a job working nights at a local Subway sandwich shop, taking and filling orders for hungry customers. It was while he worked at Subway that he saw a television commercial about Army recruiters in the mall handing out free T-shirts.
He freely admitted, “I’m a sucker for a free T-shirt.” So it was the offer of a free T-shirt which initially drew him to the recruiting event and led to his subsequent enlistment in the Army on a November day in 2003. Sal says he was not being patriotic nor was his enlistment a response to 9/11. He was curious about the world and was looking for something beyond his life behind the counter of a Subway sandwich shop.
Sal attended basic training and infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia. From March 2005 until March 2006 he was deployed to Afghanistan. And after a short respite, he was again sent to Afghanistan from May 2007 until July 2008. It was during this second tour of duty that he would experience a life-changing phenomenon which would occur in the space of just three minutes.
Shortly after nightfall on October 25, 2007, Sal and the rest of the seven troops of 1st Platoon had just finished a day-long overwatch of 2nd and 3rd Platoons in a dangerous valley.
The term “overwatch” is defined as a small unit supporting another unit, while they are executing fire and movement tactics. The overwatching unit takes a position where it can observe the terrain ahead and search for likely enemy positions.
Although it was dark, there was sufficient moonlight so that night vision equipment was not needed. Having completed the overwatch assignment, the platoon was returning to its combat post. The men were walking about ten to fifteen feet apart from one another. Suddenly, the squad was ambushed by ten to fifteen insurgents from behind cover. The Taliban were so close to the platoon that the Apache helicopters overhead could not provide close air support.
While under heavy enemy fire, Sal immediately sprinted towards cover and fired at the enemy. The platoon medic, Hugo Mendoza, had been shot through the femoral artery of his leg and was dying from loss of blood. Seeing that his squad leader had also fallen and believing that he had been injured, Sal raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid. While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Sal’s body armor and his secondary weapon. He returned fire before throwing a number of grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position.
The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Sal realized that someone was missing, separated from the rest of the platoon. Sal then took a position on the crest of a hill and observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier; it was one of his best friends, Staff Sergeant Brennon. He immediately fired upon the enemy, killing one and wounding the other who escaped capture. Upon reaching Brennon, he administered medical aid, as his squad caught up to him and provided support. The ambush had lasted only three minutes: It seemed like hours.
The next day, when Sal heard that Brennan died during surgery, he did not take the news well. Staff Sergeant Erik Gallardo took Sal aside to console him. “You don’t understand,” he said to Sal, “… what you did was pretty crazy. We were outnumbered. You stopped the fight. You stopped them from taking a soldier.”
Later, Gallardo described Sal’s actions saying, “For all intents and purposes, with the amount of fire that was going on in the conflict at that time, he shouldn’t be alive.”
In August of 2009, Specialist Salvatore Augustine Giunta was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant.
On September 10, 2010, the White House announced that Staff Sergeant Salvatore Augustine Giunta would be awarded the United States’ highest military decoration, The Congressional Medal of Honor.
On November 16, 2010, in the East Room of the White house, President Barak Obama presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to Staff Sergeant Salvatore Augustine Giunta, United States Army.
During the reading of the official citation, the president stopped, turned to look at Sal and then turned back to the audience and said, “Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say, ‘I really like this guy.'”
There was laughter and applause from the audience. The President then said, “I think anybody … we all just get a sense of people and who they are … and when you meet Sal and you meet his family… you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about.”
Sal, in keeping with his persona, accepted the Medal of Honor from his Commander-in-Chief with humility, dignity and grace.