Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Newest Medal of Honor The man who has earned it is the first from this war to live to see it.


At one o'clock today in the East Room of the White House, an Iowa-born soldier will receive the nation's highest decoration for valor in combat. In our nine-year war in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is only the eighth Medal of Honor. Even more rare, the man who has earned it is the first from this war to live to see the president place it around his neck.

The soldier is Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. On Oct. 25, 2007, then-Specialist Giunta and his team were on a mountain ridge in Afghanistan's violent Korengal Valley when they were ambushed by the Taliban. He took a bullet stopped by a protective vest as he helped pull one soldier to safety.

Then he went forward to help the sergeant, Joshua Brennan, who had been walking point. Two Taliban were carrying Sgt. Brennan away. Spec. Giunta shot the Taliban and brought Sgt. Brennan back.

Here we are reminded that in war there are few storybook endings: Sgt. Brennan would soon die of his wounds.

Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
As a speechwriter for George W. Bush, it was my privilege to write speeches for some of these Medal of Honor ceremonies. Words, however, cannot capture what it's like to watch the surviving moms, dads, brothers, wives and sisters standing up there with a president, hearts bursting with pride over their loved one's achievement, aching with a loss that will never be filled. Because he has lived, Sgt. Giunta's ceremony will be a happier occasion.

Not that he's ready to be called a hero. "I'm not at peace with that at all," he said on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. "And coming and talking about it and people wanting to shake my hand because of it, it hurts me because it's not what I want. And to be with so many people doing so much stuff and then to be singled out . . ."

Sgt. Giunta's words, of course, remind us that he does not need this ceremony. The ceremony is for the rest of us. It reminds us of the sacrifices made so we can sleep easy at night—and of the kind of fighting man our society has produced.

What kind of man is that? When we think of military heroism, we may think of Rambos decorated for great damage inflicted on the enemy. In fact, the opposite is true. Every Medal of Honor from these wars has been for an effort to save life. Even more telling, each specifically recognizes bravery that cannot be commanded.

Of the eight who have earned it, three—Army Pfc. Ross McGinniss, Navy Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham—threw themselves on grenades to protect their comrades. Navy Lt. Michael Murphy knowingly exposed himself to enemy fire so he could call in help for his team.

Army Staff Sgt. Jared Monti died trying to rescue a fellow soldier. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller was killed while diverting gunfire from Taliban forces so his team could carry their commander to safety. Army Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith—the first from these wars to earn the Medal—took on an overwhelming Iraqi force from a machine gun atop a disabled armored personnel carrier, allowing the safe withdrawal of many wounded American soldiers.

On that ridge in Afghanistan, Salvatore Giunta could not save his sergeant. But he did deprive the enemy of its victory—and death of some of its sting. In that same "60 Minutes" segment, a fellow soldier (who earned a Silver Star in the same firefight) put it this way. "The last thing Brennan ever saw was us," says Sgt. Erick Gallardo. "You know, he saw us fighting for him. . . . We fought for him and he's home with his family now because of that." It's a soldier's gift. Because of Sgt. Giunta, the family of Josh Brennan know that when their loved one breathed his last, he did so knowing he was among friends willing to put their own lives at risk for him.

There was a day when our highest military distinction would be understood for both the rarity and the honor that it is. It no longer seems to work that way. Maybe it's the price of an all-volunteer professional force. When more of us served, we knew what a Medal of Honor meant—and we knew about Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, and Bronze Stars too.

Whatever the reason, it's unrealistic to expect any nation, even a wartime America, to spend every hour commemorating those who defend us. Which is precisely why we have the Medal of Honor, and the public ceremonies attached to it. For a brief, national moment, a warrior is held up to the American people as an example to his fellows—and the embodiment of our highest ideals.

Today at the White House, Barack Obama and Salvatore Giunta will give us such a moment. Let's hope we're not too busy to notice.

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