Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta will be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, an area called the Valley of Death. In October of 2007, during Operation Rock Avalanche, an ambush of at least a dozen Taliban fighters attacked Giunta’s company and left two of his fellow soldiers dead. Had it not been for Giunta, it would have likely been more, if not all, of the platoon. On November 16, Giunta will be the first living soldier since the Vietnam War to receive America’s highest honor, when it is awarded by President Obama at the White House.
Vanity Fair contributing photographer Tim Hetherington spotlights Giunta in the December issue. While on assignment with contributing editor Sebastian Junger—who wrote a book about Giunta and his platoon, War— Hetherington was with a platoon near Giunta’s in the Korengal during Operation Rock Avalanche. Hetherington also wrote a book about his time in the Korengal,Infidel, and he and Junger’s documentary Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Giunta sat down with Hetherington and spoke at length about the medal and his service in Afghanistan.
Tim Hetherington: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up joining the army?
Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta: At the time I joined the Army I was working at Subway. I didn’t really have a whole lot going on.
Was it a result of 9/11, or were you curious about the world?
I was curious about the world. I wasn’t trying to be patriotic. It just felt right.
Did you want to do this growing up?
When I was working at Subway, I was working nights—and the commercial came on about the recruiters in the mall handing out T-shirts. Oh, I’m a sucker for a free T-shirt. I’m still a sucker for a free T-shirt. I’d keep that quiet around some people—offer me a free T-shirt, I might do something crazy.
Your first appointment was in Zabul?
Yes, with 173rd and Battle Company.
You went from Iowa to Afghanistan. What went through your head?
I don’t know exactly the one thought that was running through my head. I know I became a man in Afghanistan—whatever entails being a man—there was definitely a change that happened that first time in Afghanistan where I grew up. I felt grown up. I felt like the world could beat me. I didn’t feel so impervious either. I knew shit could stop me.
Was there a particular event that happened there that made you realize you’d grown up?
August 21, 2005, there was an I.E.D. that hit one of the trucks in the company from Third Platoon—four guys died and one guy was seriously wounded. It’s one thing to see someone dead. But it’s another thing to see an American soldier, or someone you know. They’re at the strongest moments of their life and it is just … gone from them.
In Sebastian Junger’s book War, he talks about when Brendan O’Byrne says, “There’s people in this platoon who hate each other, but we’d all die for each other.” It’s not just friendship, but it’s also a brotherhood?
It is a brotherhood. I don’t think it’s something you can expect, because it’s such a strong feeling, you’ll never know it unless it’s already happened, and then you have it. Can’t get rid of it. Can’t shake it.
What else sticks in your mind about the Zabul Province deployment?
On September 1, 2005, Lieutenant [Derek Haines] died in the Baylough area, and that made me really feel my own mortality at 19 or 20. My team leader, Nicholas Post. talked to me. He said, “It is what it is and you just got to try to do everything you can when it’s your time to do it. It might be you tomorrow. It might be me tomorrow. It might be, you know, all of us tomorrow. But that’s tomorrow.” I’ve pretty much taken that with me the rest of my life from the time we had that talk.
Did you re-up after Zabul, or had you signed up for a certain length of time?
I signed up for four years when I came into the army. I didn’t think that I was going to go again, but Stop-Loss. I didn’t really understand Stop-Loss, until Stop-Loss.
So as a result of Stop-Loss you went to the Korengal?
We were in the Korengal, but I couldn’t leave the Korengal as a result of the Stop-Loss, yes.
Describe flying into the Korengal.
There’s a lot of mountains, and they’re steep and rocky. I was thinking, it was maybe going to be a little Afghan paradise. It was not an Afghan paradise. The dudes already there were looking rough and tired. And they were happy that we were there, which makes you a little bit uneasy.
What had you heard about the Korengal before you went?
I didn’t really hear much. I tried not to pay attention. It was going to come regardless of what I heard.
Tell me about Operation Rock Avalanche.
You get a warm-fuzzy feeling inside when you see the Apache [helicopter] circling. That’s pretty sweet, you know? I know they got rockets. I know they got guns, and they got eyes from above. We were walking back out the way we came in, in the morning. We came in under darkness, and we’re going to leave right there as the sun’s going down and Apaches are around—should be fairly quick and painless.
See, I try to forget a lot of this—it benefits me in the long run—and coming back and talking about it wrenches the gut. Rock Avalanche was a long, drawn-out deal. So we started walking back, and they set up a good ambush. They did what we would have done.
What was the first…
There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky. A wall of bullets at every one at the same time with one crack and then a million other cracks afterwards. They’re above you, in front of you, behind you, below you. They’re hitting in the dirt early. They’re going over your head. Just all over the place. They were close—as close as I’ve ever seen.
What do you do in that situation?
You do everything you can. You don’t think. You just react. Everyone knows. This isn’t our first rodeo, and this isn’t everyone’s first time getting shot at. This is a newer experience, and this is a different way that it’s ever come in, but everyone knows exactly what they need to do. If they’re shooting? Shoot back. If there’s cover, you find it. It’s just all self-preservation at that point. Everyone’s just giving it back as hard as we can, because the more we shoot, hopefully the less they shoot.
When did you know it was an L-shaped ambush?
Not until the end. All your attention is where all the flashes are. It looks like a bunch of little dragons spitting fire, and then there’s just a whole bunch of rounds coming in.
You can see bullets around you going off and—
I got hit in the plate, but in the lower part of the plate, and I got hit at an angle that it came more from the north and not from the east, which is where all these bullets were coming from, and bullets don’t turn corners. They bounce off of shit, but they don’t turn corners, and that one would have had to turn a corner to come and hit me like that, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
If a bullet hit my plate, I would freak out. Weren’t you scared?
There’s no time to be scared. In hindsight, it’s scarier than it was then. That’s what makes talking about it so difficult. Talking about it I can rehash and I can think about every second of it and everything in my mind and I can really dwell on it when, at the time, there’s no time to dwell on it. They brought the fight. We’ll bring the pain.
It didn’t even feel like I got hit down here. Almost simultaneously as that happened, I looked at Sergeant Gallardo, and I watched his head kind of do one of those—I don’t know—an abnormal twitch. I thought he got shot in the head. He got shot in the helmet. I just ran and grabbed onto him and brought him back to where we were. We consolidated grenades.
You swapped grenades?
There’s no time—you can’t sit there. You got to act. We only got so many grenades. So we threw our grenades and we ran forward. We got down. Returned fire. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. Throw grenades. Boom. Run forward. On the third grenade we threw, we made it to Specialist Franklin Eckrode, and he was trying to fix his jam [in his gun]. He’s on the ground. He was already shot at that point. I think he got shot in the calf and in the thigh.
What sort of time frame are we talking?
One, two, I don’t know—a million lifetimes. Time is out the window.
When you’re in that situation, those heightened moments, did you feel like you had a chance to think at all?
I didn’t have to think at all, and I didn’t even think about having to think because we were just going…
So you push forward. You get to Eckrode and then?
I just kept on running up the trail trying to find Brennan and see what the fuck is up, why the fuck he was all the way up there. This shit sucks—I kept on running and I saw three guys. There was two guys carrying one guy and the one had his arms, and the other had his legs. I got my gun in my hand, just running at him. At that time, the thought was: Who the hell is up here and how did they get up here? How did they pass us?
All of a sudden, I only knew one of them, and it wasn’t the one that I wanted to know. It was Brennan—and he was the one being carried away. Just fucking running and shooting, running and shooting, trying to close the gap with them. I shot at both of them. I killed one, I guess. The other one I shot the shit out of… but didn’t see him, and by the time my magazine was already empty, I was at Brennan… I yelled for Sergeant Gallardo that, God, they’re fucking taking him.
Take your time. It’s O.K.
Yeah, it’s a lot harder looking back on it than it was when it was happening.
Like you said, going over it at a distance is tough.
I don’t really plan on answering this question too many times. I don’t have to. I got a great book written by Sebastian Junger called War.You want to read about it, read about it. You don’t want to hear me talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it.
It must be an awful experience to see your friend really hurt, and to see some assholes trying to drag him off the side.
It did. Plus, Brennan’s was a bad ass, too. He’s not that big a guy, but he’s tough. And he was hurt. And he was hurt bad.
What was he saying?
He was just hurt. He said he couldn’t breathe. He said he couldn’t breathe. And his face was—was pretty bad. And I just grabbed him by the strap on the back of his [body armor], turned around, and started running the other way. When I dragged him back, he didn’t have his gun, he didn’t have his rucksack, he didn’t have his helmet, he didn’t have his NODS [night vision], he didn’t have anything with him. He’s alive. He’s not dead. And he’s talking.
I didn’t know, but I guess Specialist Hugo Mendoza, the Platoon medic, got shot in the leg in his femoral artery and he ended up bleeding out, so I didn’t know that there was not going to be a medic coming…
I was with Brennan, like, “Dude, this time you’re really going to go home. You’re going to be drinking beers and telling your stories to the ladies.” He said, “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”
Was there a point where you thought, “What the fuck just happened?” Or were you still focused on Brennan?
I was focused on Brennan. I knew that they took Mendoza and I didn’t know that he was dead. I knew they took Eckrode, and I knew they took Brennan, and I don’t know how bad anyone else was other than Brennan.
Your platoon eventually joined the 2nd. What was going through your head when you were walking back?
Same thing that goes through my head every time, I guess, we’re walking. Scan, look, check team, confront, check team, scan, look. Sooner or later we’ll be back. We had to divvy up the equipment, so there were people carrying multiple weapons, people carrying extra body armor. I could just feel the weight of Brennan’s body armor in my ruck.
When did you first hear that you were going to be up for a Medal of Honor? It was some time after you returned from the Korengal, wasn’t it?
It was a couple of days later that I heard. Sergeant Gallardo went down for a meeting and came back up and told me. That’s when I found out.
What went through your head when you heard about it?
“Fuck you,” I said. It sounds really awesome in theory, but what’s it worth? Brennan? Mendoza? No. I did what I did because in the scheme of painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brush stroke. That’s not above and beyond. I didn’t take the biggest brush stroke, and it wasn’t the most important brush stroke. Hearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face. I don’t think you know what I did. I didn’t do shit.
You’ll get asked a lot about bravery. What is bravery to you? How would you define it?
Bravery to me is doing something that doesn’t necessarily have to be done, doing it full heartedly, accepting it no matter what consequence comes from it, because it really does need to be done. Everyone out there is brave. Don’t have to be in Afghanistan.
By your own definition, it’s brave, what you did out there.
I was one person being brave in a group of a whole bunch of people that were being just as brave. Everything had the same thing to lose: their friends and themselves. I guarantee, no one thought about that out there. Bravery gets thrown around a lot. I served in Battle Company Second of the 503rd with the bravest men I’ve ever met in my entire life, and I’m proud to say that.
What does the Medal symbolize for you?
I want to stress the fact that this is the nation’s highest honor. Awesome. And it’s given to me, but just as much as me, every single person that I’ve been with deserves to wear it—they are just as much of me as I am. This isn’t a one-man show. I’m here because someone picked me. I hope that everyone around me can share in whatever pride that comes from it. They deserve that pride.
Tell me about the moment you got the call from the president?
President Obama called me on September 9, 2010, and notified me that he had approved the Medal of Honor for my actions on October 25, 2007, in the Korengal Valley. My heart was just pounding. I don’t even remember what I said, but there was a Mr. President in there.
It’s quite a story. The guy who listened to a recruiting jingle while mopping floors in a Subway sandwich shop is talking to the President.
I’m just another American dude. I’m nothing special, trust me.
What did you think when you heard the news that we were pulling out of the Korengal?
I was in Washington, D.C., when I saw it on the news. At first it upset me. And then, there’s no sense being upset with it. That’s not our land. We’re not occupying their country. We don’t even want the Korengal Valley. We’re there to help them. If we pull out, that is ultimately going to be their loss, but for whatever reasons, we’re not pulling out of Afghanistan.
If there was peace in Afghanistan would you go back?
The world’s a big place. I’d rather go somewhere else.