On Patrol staff

I was assigned to the 173rd in May 2004, and I’ve been with the 173rd ever since in the same company—Battle Company, 2nd of the 503rd. I have deployed twice with them, both times to Afghanistan. The first time was in support of Operation Enduring Freedom 6 for 12 months and the second deployment was for Operation Enduring Freedom 8 for 15 months.

Did you interact with the Afghan people during your deployments?

In my 27 months in Afghanistan, being with the 173rd, being Airborne, being infantry, being able to walk the mountains and live in the mountains for weeks, months, even a year—[or] 15 months on end—most of the areas we were in were very rural [the Korengal Valley]. [The Afghans] received us well when we were giving them free stuff and helping them, but the second we walked out, things could definitely change.

But that ensures everyone’s situational awareness is always with them. No matter how much we give them, we know they’re not going to reciprocate. We’re not there to feel good. We were there for the mission. We were there to engage the elders and let them know we were not bad guys. We were there to engage the populace to let them know, “Hey, we’re here for you, we’ll help you in the winter, we’ll help you in the summer time, we’ll help you do other things than what you are doing now.”

Regardless of what they did, we were going to come back the next day and do the same exact thing because that was the mission set out for us.

What kept morale up in Afghanistan?

We got a telephone after seven months. But you got to make one phone call a month and when you made that phone call you had to walk two hours with a patrol of 14 people. Then it’s time to walk back after everyone’s made their call, so it turns into an actual combat mission just to go and use the phone.

What happened during Operation Rock Avalanche?

Those five days were rough. Talking about October 25, for me, is still difficult. It’s been three years. I remember more of what I saw other people doing. They did exactly what they needed to do. The only reason I was able to do what I did was because they were doing everything else.

My squad leader, Staff Sergeant Gallardo, got hit in the helmet. He was falling and I saw his head twitch like he got hit in the head. I ran up to grab him and pull him back because of where he was—no man’s land and in the middle of an intense firefight. He ended up being okay.

We found ourselves that day in an L-shaped near ambush. We all ran together. We moved, we threw grenades, we moved, and threw more grenades, and with that we got there basically as a [fire] team plus. I made the movement with three other dudes… the two guys on my team plus a squad leader. They stopped. There was no reason for me to stop. That was the only reason that put me up front, essentially alone.

What went through your mind when you saw Sergeant Josh Brennan being dragged away by the Taliban?

That’s not something you expect. That’s one of those things… it’s difficult. I don’t have the words to actually explain it. It pissed me off.

Are you still in contact with any members of your platoon or their families?

My good buddy Josh Brennan didn’t come back, but I have talked to his dad a number of times. A lot of guys that were with me on the 25th are still with the 173rd and still in Battle Company right now.

You’ve said you don’t feel like you’re a “hero.” Why?

Everyone is going to do what they have to do—some people might do a little more—but when it’s life and death, everyone’s going to do everything they can. But it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team.

You can take that whole ambush and think of it as a picture painted over a period of time. I was only a single brush stroke in that whole entire picture. I didn’t complete the picture, I didn’t start the picture, and I was not even the most beautiful brush stroke in the picture. I was just one element in the creation of this picture in time.

So when someone calls me a hero, they had better call all my buddies heroes. I didn’t do anything outstanding. I just did my part to fill that gap of time to help complete the picture.

What advice would you give troops still fighting in remote locations of Afghanistan?

I watched them pull out of the Korengal Valley. It’s amazingly tough now with the way the ROE [Rules of Engagement] are because we’re not an occupying force. Regardless of how great we do in this area, it’s not going to be our land. We’re not going to keep it.

But that shows the strength of the men and women willing to fight for it, because all we’re doing is fighting to help them [the Afghans] better their own lives. If they don’t like it, so be it. We can say we gave it a try. That really speaks volumes to the American soldier who goes out there and does multiple deployments. Going to Afghanistan and to Iraq and back to Afghanistan; different theaters, multiple times. It’s absolutely amazing. I appreciate everything that those men and women are doing and I know how hard it is. I hope to convey that to the general populous who may not know.

A lot of people ask, “Why?” Well, it’s not “why,” it’s just “that” we do. We don’t ask “why?” This is just what we do, and we do it well.

-Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta received the Medal of Honor on November 16, 2010, for his actions during Operation Rock Avalanche in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan in 2007. He is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.