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Army Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta today became the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War. Giunta's truly heroic story was chronicled in Sebastian Junger's book on the Afghan War, War, the relevant section of which is excerpted in full here. Operating in the Korengal Valley, an extremely isolated corner of Afghanistan that has been the scene of some of the war's most sustained and brutal fighting, Giunta undertook and somehow survived a superman-like charge into enemy lines in order to recover wounded fellow soldiers. Here's the full citation, a recent 60 Minutes interview with Giunta, and what people are writing about the Medal of Honor recipient.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007.

While conducting a patrol as team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force. While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted towards cover and engaged the enemy. Seeing that his squad leader had fallen and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid.

While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Specialist Giunta's body armor and his secondary weapon. Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position. Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element. Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative.

As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security. Specialist Giunta's unwavering courage, selflessness, and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy.

Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, and the United States Army.
  • How This Will Change Things for Giunta  Stars and Stripes' Leo Shane calls today's ceremony "a preview of a new reality for Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient for actions in the current wars. ... Most recipients have been pushed to noncombat roles, either recruiting or training. Sterner said that Giunta very well may go back to Afghanistan 'but in a morale-boosting or inspirational role.' Back at his home base, Guinta’s role and stature will be immediately affected by the honor." Shane makes it clear that Giunta is "uncomfortable" with "the attention and accolades surrounding the Medal of Honor."
  • Despite Medal, Korengal Was Lost  The New York Times' Elizabeth Rubin was there for the disastrous push to secure part of Korengal when Giunta earned the medal. Giunta and the other men in his unit, writes Rubin, are angry and frustrated to have sacrificed so much for Korengalis who don't want them there. "As for the Korengal Valley, Giunta was right. The Korengalis would never leave or give up. Last April, after three more years of killing and dying in that valley, the Americans decided to leave the place to the locals."
  • Army Anoints Giunta as Model Soldier  The official U.S. Army website explains as part of a daily email to servicemembers, "Staff Sgt. Giunta's actions embody the Army values and its highest ideals. His selflessness, leadership and service above and beyond the call of duty exemplify what is best in our young Soldiers. As a living Medal of Honor recipient, Staff Sgt. Giunta enjoys unique status and prestige. His humility, practicality, commitment to the team and down-to-earth demeanor make him an ideal spokesman for the Army. Staff Sgt. Giunta can deliver the Army message with unique force and credibility due to his powerful underlying narrative and attractive personal qualities."
In practice, to earn the Medal you have two methods at your disposal: the hard way and, well, the other hard way.  Call them Hard Way #1 and Hard Way #2.

Hard Way #1 is to commit a multi-part act of near comic-book-style heroism (see here or here, or Giunta’s case) and, more often than not, die. Pentagon committees then convene to determine whether your valor merits an award traditionally given for acts so brave that no one would have even thought to complain if the soldier had neglected to do them.

Hard Way #2 is a faster and surer method of winning the Medal: smother a grenade with your body and save the lives of your fellow servicemen. This method nearly always wins the Medal—some 70 times in Vietnam, and three times since September 11—but the catch is that you almost always die.

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