Under a bright Afghan moon, eight U.S. paratroopers trudged along a ridge in the Korengal Valley, unaware they were walking into a trap. Less than 20 feet away, a band of Taliban fighters executed the ambush plan perfectly, enveloping the paratrooper squad in an explosion of bullets and grenades.
Army Spc. Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old 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 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.
The White House announced Friday that President Barack Obama will award Giunta, now a staff sergeant, the Medal of Honor.
He will be the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
"It was one of the worst days of my life, and when I revisit it, it kind of guts me a little bit more every time," Giunta, now 25, said Friday.
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 combat.
About a dozen Taliban fighters had concealed themselves along the ridge. As gunfire and grenades erupted, the paratrooper's medic, Spc. 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.
Further ahead was Army Spc. 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.
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. Brennan had been shot in the jaw, the back and several other places.
Giunta, tossing his last grenade and emptying his magazine, killed one of the men and chased off the other. Still taking fire, he provided cover and comfort to his mortally wounded teammate until help arrived.
"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 his book, War. "I did what I did because that's what I was trained to do."
"I entered the Army when I was 18, and I'm 25 now. I became a man in the Army," Giunta said from his current post in Vicenza, Italy. "That night I learned a lot — and after that night I learned even more. This respect that people are giving to me? This was one moment. In my battalion, I am mediocre at best. This shows how great the rest of them are."
The official White House statement differs: "His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands." The ceremony date has not been set.
"President Obama said 'thank you' for what I did," Giunta said, after getting a call from the president. "My heart was pounding out of my chest, so much that my ears almost stopped hearing. I had my wife by my side. She was holding my hand. When she heard me say, 'Mr. President,' she gave me a squeeze."
This report was compiled from the New York Times and Washington Post.