16 November 2010

President: Medal of Honor recipient as "humble as he is heroic".

President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in the US military, to Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta in a ceremony at the White House today. Staff Sgt. Giunta is the first living American to receive the award since the Vietnam War.

No words of mine are adequate for the occasion. I'll defer to Leo Shane of Stars and Stripes:

[Giunta] was honored for his bravery during his second deployment to Afghanistan, while serving as a rifle team leader with a company from the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the Korengal Valley.

On Oct. 25, 2007, then-Spc. Giunta’s squad was ambushed by insurgents and two soldiers were cut off from the rest. In the initial moments of the firefight, Giunta ventured out into enemy fire to pull a comrade back to cover. Minutes later, he sprinted through enemy fire to stop a pair of insurgents from abducting another wounded soldier.

Obama called Giunta “a soldier as humble as he is heroic” and drew laughs from the crowd when he broke from his prepared speech and remarked that “I really like this guy.”

The upbeat mood of the ceremony was a sharp contrast to the seven others held for heroes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all awarded their Medals of Honor posthumously.

Instead of presenting the medal in a wooden box to a set of mourning parents, Obama had to straighten the ribbon around Giunta’s neck after presenting it to him. Instead of polite applause, teammates of Giunta shouted “Hoo-ah” at every opportunity.

In Vicenza, Italy, where Giunta is stationed, about 100 soldiers and spouses gathered at the base entertainment complex to watch the live broadcast of the ceremony.

Sgt. Major Ruben Diaz, the battalion operations noncommissioned officer, said all of those gathered were excited to see one of their own honored with the country’s highest award for heroism.

“A lot of pride,” he said. “You could see it in this room.

“At any one time, you could be the leader. You have to be ready. Be prepared. It’s a lesson every senior NCO tries to get across. … Sal’s a good example.”

After the event Guinta took a more somber tone with his remarks, taking time to honor his two teammates killed that day: Spc. Hugo Mendoza and Sgt. Joshua Brennan, the man he saved from abduction.

“This is an incredible time, but it’s also kind of a bittersweet time. Because of this day, I lost two dear friends of mine,” he said. “I would give this back in a second to have those friends here with me now.

“There are so many others that are the unsung heroes of this war who will never come back to a handshake, or a hug from their families. We have to take the time to remember them.”

Obama also recognized the parents of Mendoza and Brennan, thanking them first during his speech and then privately after the ceremony.

In the weeks leading up to the White House event, Giunta frequently noted that he felt his actions were nothing extraordinary, but instead something any soldier would do. Obama challenged that idea in his praise.

“Your actions disrupted a devastating ambush before it could claim more lives,” Obama said, turning to his right to face Giunta. “Your courage prevented the capture of an American soldier and brought that soldier back to his family. You may believe that you don’t deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it.

“We’re all in your debt. And I’m proud to be your commander-in-chief.”

Two things marred the day, though. The first was that, instead of airing the awards ceremony, American television networks continued to air soap operas and "Real Housewives of Atlanta". Sorry, but Staff Sergeant Giunta's actions are reality television; and reality television worth watching.

But what really got on my nerves was a recent op-ed decrying the "feminization" of the Medal of Honor for actions such as (gasp) saving the lives of one's comrades, instead of killing the enemy. Fortunately, Adam Weinstein took the liberty of tearing that op-ed to shreds so I don't have to. Suffice to say that there are probably dozens of combat medics rolling in their graves over that op-ed.

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