Ambushed in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters who were carrying his mortally wounded friend away.
Three years after acts of battlefield bravery, Giunta, 25, on Tuesday became the first living service member from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to receive the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor. He's the first living recipient in nearly 40 years.
Far from the perilous ridge where his unit was attacked on a moonlit night in October 2007, Giunta stood in the glittering White House East Room, in the company of military brass, past Medal of Honor winners, his surviving comrades and families as President Barack Obama hung the blue ribbon cradling the medal around Giunta's neck.
"I'm going to go off script here and just say, 'I really like this guy,' " Obama said, calling him "a soldier as humble as he is heroic."
"When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about, and it just makes you proud."
For Giunta, the tribute was bittersweet. It was a bloody day in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and the two soldiers he rescued later died. "Although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now," the Hiawatha, Iowa, native said afterward on the rain-soaked White House driveway.
Obama said Giunta "charged headlong into the wall of bullets." The sergeant first pulled a soldier who had been struck in the helmet to safety, then sprinted ahead to find two Taliban fighters dragging away the stricken Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan.
"Sal never broke stride," Obama said. "He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off."
As bullets rained, Giunta dragged Brennan by his vest to cover and worked feverishly to stop the bleeding until the wounded Americans were flown from the ridge. Brennan and another platoon member, medic Hugo V. Mendoza, died. Five were wounded.
Forty-two Americans have died in Korengal Valley, a deadly sliver of eastern Afghanistan that insurgents use to move weapons and fighters from Pakistan. U.S. troops pulled out of the perilous valley and other remote areas about seven months ago after commanders decided it was best to use forces to protect civilian population centers.