Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tears of Gratitude

Tonight on 60 Minutes the story was told of an Army Staff Sergeant, Salvatore Augustine Guinta - the first living person to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

In 2007, Giunta was stationed at Firebase Vegas in the Korengal Valley - an area described as Hell on earth near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, nicknamed by the soldiers as the Valley of Death. In late October, his company launched a six-day mission -  one that would kill several soldiers, a nurse and wound two other infantrymen.

Shortly after nightfall on October 25, 2007 Giunta and the rest of the seven troops of 1st Platoon had just finished a day-long overwatch of 2nd and 3rd Platoon in the valley below. They walked about 10 to 15 feet apart through the thin forest, and within 50 to 100 metres of leaving their position, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, 10 RPG launchers and three belt-fed PKM Machine Guns -10 to 15 Afghan insurgents ambushed the main body of the squad from cover and concealment only about 10 metres away. 

Sergeant Joshua Brennan, leader of alpha team and one of Giunta's best friends, was followed by SPC Frank Eckrode, squad leader Erick Gallardo, and then Giunta, who was then a specialist. PFC Kaleb Casey and Garret Clary followed Giunta. A 13-man HQ unit led by Lt. Brad Winn, including a five-man gun team from weapons squad, along with a nurse who volunteered for the mission. When the Taliban opened fire, Brennan was struck by eight rounds and Eckrode was hit by four rounds. Gallardo attempted to sprint forward, but RPGs exploding around him along with machine gun and small arms fire stopped him. Unable to advance, he fell back to join Giunta's bravo team. While backpedaling and firing at the same time, he fell and was in the same moment struck in the helmet by an AK-47 round. An RPG round struck very near Giunta, who was returning fire and directing bravo team.  

Giunta saw Gallardo take the bullet to his head and fall. Assuming Gallardo had been shot, Giunta rose and ran through the intense wall of fire to his side. As he helped the uninjured sergeant find cover the lower right portion of his protective vest was struck by a bullet. Another round struck the SMAW-D weapon slung over his back. Giunta recognized that the extremely heavy tracer fire was coming not just from his west but from the north as well, a classic L-shaped ambush that threatened to roll over the squad. He ordered Casey and Clary to pull back a few steps to prevent the Taliban from flanking them.

The platoon leader in the HQ unit, Lieutenant Brad Winn, radioed Captain Kearney to advise him that their unit had five wounded men. The squad's medic, Specialist Hugo Mendoza, was among them. He had been shot through the femoral artery at the beginning of the ambush and died. Kearney ordered Second Platoon to assist Winn's platoon, but Second Platoon was in the valley below, some distance away, and had to first cross a river to reach them.

Giunta and Gallardo gathered Casey and Clary. They were pinned down by the concentrated small arms and cyclic machine gun fire from a number of Taliban positions at close range. Less than 15 seconds into the ambush, Giunta and his men acted to disrupt the attack. They alternated throwing volleys of fragmentation grenades towards the Taliban about 15 metres  to their west and moving north. Firing Pfc. Casey’s M249, Clarey's M203, and their other weapons, they advanced until they reached Eckrode. Shot twice in one leg and with two other wounds, Eckrode was attempting to unjam his M249 SAW. Gallardo, who later received a Silver Star for his actions, dressed Eckrode's wounds and called for MEDEVAC.

Giunta continued with Pfc. Clary to advance over the exposed, open ground of the ridge in the dark, looking for Brennan. When they could not locate him where they expected to find him, they ran after the retreating Taliban. The anti-coalition militia covered their rear with effective small arms fire but the Americans ran after them. Giunta saw three individuals and then recognized that two of them were Afghans dragging Sgt. Brennan, one by the legs and one by his arms. Giunta pursued them, firing his M4 Carbine as he ran, killing one. The second Afghan dropped Brennan and fled; Brennan was grievously hurt.The ambush had lasted three minutes. Later the next day, Brennan died while in surgery, but many of the other men were still alive - and the Taliban didn't get what they wanted - a US Soldier to tote around like some suvenir.

While the story was harrowing, the thing that really got to me was the torture that the medal has bestowed upon Guinta. Like any true hero, Guinta doesn't feel like he's done anything to deserve the medal, he was just doing what any other soldier would do. He doesn't feel that he sacrificed all - he is still here and many other men are not. He seems to be under the impression that one has not sacrificed all unless he has given his life. He has decided to leave the Army for good next month, to move to Colorado, pursue education and prepare for the birth of his first child. When asked why is leaving he stated that serving the Country has changed for him - that the medal he now wears follows him wherever he goes. He's a Staff Sergeant, but when he goes anywhere he sits with the highest of ranks - people recognize him on the street and shake his hand - congratulating him for a job well done. But his stance is what about all of the other men and women that serve; he doesn't feel he should have any special recognition. It has been said among the men who wear the Medal of Honor that doing the job it takes to receive the Medal of Honor is not nearly as difficult as having to wear it. 

I say anyone who serves this country and is willing to give life and limb to keep us free is deserving of the highest merit; and to all of them I say thank you - two words that cannot even begin to express the gratitude and appreciation I have. This Memorial Day I will remember those that have given their lives for this great Country and also all of those who are currently serving, that they may return to US soil safely and quickly.

And in closing - a tribute to the best soldier I know - Dad.  De Opresso Liber - You will always be my hero.


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