Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old Army specialist from Hiawatha, Iowa, was knocked flat by the gunfire; luckily, a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers tried to gather their senses and scramble for a shred of cover, Giunta reacted instinctively, running straight into the teeth of the ambush to aid three wounded soldiers, one by one, who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, and most of the others sustained serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for the bravery of Giunta, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
On Friday, the White House announced that President Obama decided to award Giunta, now a staff sergeant, the Medal of Honor.
He will become the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor who has served in any war since Vietnam.
Six medals have been awarded posthumously to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small fraction of those given during previous conflicts. In comparison, 246 Medals of Honor have been granted to those who fought in Vietnam, 133 for the Korean War and 464 for World War II.
Defense Department officials say the criteria for the medal have not changed. But veterans groups, lawmakers and even some high-ranking military officials have questioned the official explanations. The relative lack of medals from Iraq and Afghanistan, they argue, has contributed to a lack of public appreciation of the sacrifices made by U.S. troops during the past nine years of war.
"The whole thing is very political in the end, that's one of the sad things about it," said Joseph A. Kinney, an author and Vietnam veteran who has testified before Congress about the paucity of medals. "I think they just decided they were going to avoid awards of that nature" for Iraq and Vietnam.
Giunta, now 25, is still serving in the Army, as a staff sergeant based in Italy with Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He and his family did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Medal nominees are often counseled by military officials to maintain their silence while their cases pass through multiple levels of review, which can take years. Officials at the Pentagon and White House declined to comment.
But details of Giunta's act of heroism can be gleaned from interviews he gave to journalists who covered his unit's deployment to Afghanistan, a public account from his brigade commander and statements from his fellow soldiers, who credited him with saving the platoon.
"Everything slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less," Giunta told author Sebastian Junger, who gives a detailed account of the 2007 ambush in "War," his new book. "I did what I did because that's what I was trained to do."
Giunta grew up in Hiawatha, a town of 6,500 people near Cedar Rapids, and graduated from Kennedy High School. "Sal was just kind of an average kid going through high school, there's nothing that stood out other than his bravery," said Carol Sudmeier, a neighbor. "I think he really just found himself in the Army."
In November 2009, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that the Army was pushing Sal Giunta for the Medal of Honor, though his nomination did not reach the White House until later. His mother, Rose, told the newspaper that her son was "a neat guy" and decidedly humble.
"The medal should go to the guy on the right of me and the guy on the left of me," she recalled her son telling her and his father, Steve Giunta. "We were all in the fight."
Giunta's platoon was already weary from a rough deployment in the Korengal Valley - a remote part of Kunar province that the U.S. military abandoned recently after losing more than 40 troops in five years of grinding combat.
About a dozen Taliban fighters had concealed themselves along the ridge, waiting patiently for the Americans to come down the trail.
As gunfire and grenades erupted, the paratrooper's medic, Spec. Hugo Mendoza, was hit in the leg and bled to death. A round struck Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo in the helmet, knocking him down.
Giunta was also knocked flat and rolled into a washed-out rut for cover. But then he saw Gallardo ahead of him on the trail and lunged forward, dodging enemy fire to reach the staff sergeant, who survived.
Farther ahead on the trail was Army Spec. Franklin Eckrode, seriously wounded and stuck with a jammed machine gun. Giunta and two other paratroopers jumped up and rushed to his aid, headlong into the Taliban ambush, returning fire and tossing grenades as they ran.
As the two paratroopers reached Eckrode and stopped to help, Giunta kept going. Over the ridgeline, he saw two Taliban fighters dragging away Sgt. Joshua Brennan, who had taken the brunt of the fire as the lead paratrooper on the trail. Brennan had been shot in the jaw, the back and several other places. Although badly wounded, the Taliban wanted to take him hostage.
Giunta, tossing his last grenade and emptying his rifle's magazine, killed one of the Taliban and chased off the other. He tried to keep Brennan alive until a medevac helicopter could get there. "He was still conscious. He was breathing. He was asking for morphine. I said, 'You'll get out and tell your hero stories.' and he was like, 'I will, I will,' " Giunta later told Elizabeth Rubin, a journalist who wrote about the battle for the New York Times Magazine.
The chopper arrived and whisked Brennan away. His wounds, however, were too serious. He died several hours later.
Giunta said he kept racing ahead during the ambush not out of a sense of honor or morality but because he instinctively knew that the Taliban was trying to separate the platoon members from one another. If the paratroopers had allowed that to happen, odds were they would all die.
"I didn't run through fire to save a buddy," Giunta told Junger. "I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn't run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done."
On Thursday, the White House announced that Obama will award a posthumous Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, who sacrificed his life to save fellow U.S. soldiers and Afghan security forces during a firefight on Jan. 25, 2008. A Green Beret and a native of Harrisburg, Pa., Miller will be recognized for "immeasurable courage" for drawing enemy fire until his fellow fighters could take cover during a mission near the Pakistan border.
To see how rare it is to get the Medal of Honor while alive, see here. The Medal of Honor is, in VP Biden's words, a "big fucking deal". This guy was 23 at the time; I can't even imagine doing something like this when I was that age.
I do agree that medals have been politicized, and it really seemed like Bush and Co just wanted to sweep everything to do with the wars under the rug, and you can't really sweep awarded Medals of Honor under the rug.