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Honoring the fallen in war on terror

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, of Hiawatha, Iowa, the first living Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, closes his eyes in prayer before being honored during a ceremony in 2010 at the Statehouse in Des Moines.

Associated Press (2010)

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, of Hiawatha, Iowa, the first living Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, closes his eyes in prayer before being honored during a ceremony in 2010 at the Statehouse in Des Moines.

In the time since I was named the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, many people have called me a hero. It is not a label I am particularly comfortable embracing.

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When I think of the bravery of a hero, I think of the soldiers I served alongside in harrowing conditions and those who continue to return to those dangerous places. And when I consider the sacrifices made by a hero, I remember friends who gave their lives so that the rest of us could enjoy relative peace. I do not believe I will ever truly get used to hearing people call me hero. Yet I will accept the recognition every time if it gives me a chance to tell the stories of my heroes — my brothers and sisters in arms.

Today's generation of military men and women have not suffered a shortage of encouragement from our nation. Our service members are grateful for the care packages, kind words from strangers, contributions of military support organizations and warm homecomings. We know the nation has not always been as united behind the military, and we do not take that encouragement for granted.

However, even with an outpouring of support, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face a different challenge. Today's military members serve a nation more disconnected from its armed forces than at any time in our country's history. Less than 1 percent of our citizens serve in uniform.

At the 2011 West Point graduation ceremony, Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the American public was undoubtedly supportive of the military, but admitted, "I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle." For such a divide to exist after our military had endured, at that time, nearly 10 years of continuous combat speaks to just how few personal connections Americans have with today's warriors.

Our nation needs a place that helps us make a personal connection to those who have answered the call, a place that both honors current service members and educates our citizens about the individual stories behind the names and numbers we see on the news.

The military may be just a small minority of today's population, but the sacrifices made by these service members are just as profound as those made by every generation before. Their bravery is just as unmatched. Their heroism is just as great. The grief of their family and friends when they do not return is just as wrenching. And the obligation we have to ensure our nation never forgets who they were is just as sacred.

Until the day comes when our nation finds an appropriate way to pay tribute to the men and women who served in the global war on terror, the founders of the Vietnam War Memorial have offered to share a place of honor with today's veterans. Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will host a ceremonial groundbreaking on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Education Center at the Wall, a facility that will use photos, state of the art technology, and the 400,000 pieces of memorabilia left at the Vietnam War Memorial since 1982 to tell the stories of the more than 58,000 engraved names.

A place within this center will be dedicated to the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan. Digital photos of these service members will be shown in rotating displays. The exhibit will help bring to life those selfless men and women who gave their lives in relative obscurity in defense of our nation. It will also provide those of us who knew them a common setting where we can visit and reflect.

The veterans of the Vietnam War know what it is like to wait for a memorial to be authorized and created. On behalf of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are grateful that they are ensuring that a memorial for our generation will be ready to welcome the last of our troops returning from Afghanistan in 2014.

I encourage our nation to support the construction of the Education Center to keep alive the stories of those we have lost. Once you learn what they gave for our country, you'll understand why I consider them the true heroes.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor on Nov. 16, 2010. Find more information about the Education Center at the Wall at www.vvmf.org. This essay is exclusive in Florida to the Tampa Bay Times.

Editor's note: In receiving the Medal of Honor, Salvatore Giunta was cited for his actions when his platoon was ambushed in Afghanistan five years ago. This description of that firefight is condensed and adapted from War, a book by Sebastian Junger.

The moon was so bright that the soldiers weren't even using night vision gear. Three enemy fighters were arrayed across the crest of the ridge below them, waiting with AK-47s. Parallel to the trail were 10 more fighters with belt-fed machine guns and RPGs. This is known as an "L-shaped ambush." Correctly done, a handful of men can wipe out an entire platoon.

One of the men was Sal Giunta, who joined the Army after hearing a radio commercial while working at a Subway sandwich shop in his Iowa hometown.

"Out of nothing — out of taking your next step — just rows of tracers, RPGs, everything happening out of nowhere with no real idea of how it just f---ing happened — but it happened," Giunta told me. "Everything kind of slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less."

A dozen Taliban fighters with rockets and belt-fed machine guns were shooting from behind cover at a distance of 15 or 20 feet; First Platoon was essentially inside a shooting gallery. Within seconds, every man in the lead squad took a bullet.

Giunta got hit in his front body-armor plate and barely noticed except that the rounds came from a strange direction. Sheets of tracers were coming from his left, but the rounds that hit him seemed to come from dead ahead. Much later, a military investigation would determine that the enemy was trying to throw up a "wall of lead" between the first few men and the rest of the unit so that they could be overrun and captured.

Giunta and two others started pushing forward by throwing hand grenades and sprinting between the blasts. Giunta threw his last grenade and then sprinted the remaining ground to where Josh Brennan, the point man, should have been. Giunta saw two enemy fighters dragging Brennan down the hillside. He emptied his M4 magazine and started running toward his friend.

First Platoon did not get wiped out because the men reacted not as individuals but as a unit. Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with 10 or 12 other men. The choreography requires that each man make decisions based not on what's best for him, but what's best for the group.

Giunta estimates that not more than 10 or 15 seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those 10 or 15 seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who reacted that way would die to the last man.

Giunta, on the other hand, used those 15 seconds to assign rates and sectors of fire to his team, run to a wounded comrade's assistance, assess the direction of a round that hit him in the chest, and then throw three hand grenades while assaulting an enemy position.

© 2010 Sebastian Junger

Honoring the fallen in war on terror 11/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 5:26pm]
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