The first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in almost four decades held county clerks and their staffs “spellbound” Tuesday when he talked to them about his journey as a “sandwich artist” working at a Subway in Iowa to a mountainside in Afghanistan to a ceremony at the White House.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta touted the men who were with him that fateful day in 2007 that claimed the lives of two men, including a close friend.
“We Americans do not go to war to fight because we … hate our enemies. We go to war and we fight because we love our homes, we love this country so much it’s worth leaving everything and preserving what we have here,” he said.
His speech — filled with honor, humility and humor — was a high point of the Colorado County Clerks Association conference, which began Monday and ended today.
“I was absolutely spellbound,” said Tina Fry, Routt County’s chief deputy clerk.
The conference was hosted by Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, president of CCCA, and his staff, who received kudos from Alton Dillard, spokesman for Denver Elections.
“I can’t tell you how many keynotes I have seen in the course of my career. Matt Crane and his team at Arapahoe County just presented the best,” Dillard wrote on his Facebook page. “I am still speechless at meeting a hero who says he’s nothing special, he just did his job.”
The incident that led to Giunta’s Medal of Honor occurred in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, when Giunta was a specialist and 22 years old. The First Platoon was ambushed.
Before President Obama presented the medal to Giunta, he pointed out to those gathered at the White House in 2010 that he had presented the Medal of Honor three times during his presidency, but always to the families of the fallen hero. He said Giunta was the first living recipient in nearly 40 years.
Giunta shared details of what happened, as did Obama during his speech.
“The two lead men were hit by enemy fire and knocked down instantly,” Obama said. “When the third was struck in the helmet and fell to the ground, Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind what little cover there was. As he did, Sal was hit twice — one round slamming into his body armor, the other shattering a weapon slung across his back.”
Giunta continued on, as two wounded soliders were still up ahead. As he crested a hill he saw the silhouettesof two insurgents carrying away a wounded American, who happened to be one of Giunta’s best friends.
“Sal never broke stride. He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off,” the president said. “Sal found his friend alive, but badly wounded. Sal had saved him from the enemy — now he had to try to save his life.
“It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience. By the time it was finished, every member of First Platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear. Five were wounded. And two gave their lives: Sal’s friend, Sergeant Joshua C. Brennan, and the platoon medic, Specialist Hugo V. Mendoza.”
President Obama called Giunta “a soldier as humble as he is heroic,” and paid tribute to Staff Sgt. Giunta’s fellow “soldiers, teammates and brothers” from Battle Company, 2d of the 503d of the 173d Airborne Brigade.
Giunta described the horrors of war for the conference-goers, calling it “ugly and disgusting and gross, and the worst thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”
“It’s bad business to pick up pieces of your friends,” he said.
After his speech, Giunta autographed copies of his book, “Living with Honor.” The line to meet the author snaked down a long hallway at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Arapahoe County.
Justine Vigil-Tapia, with the Boulder County clerk’s election department, said the speech, along with a workshop on military voters that same day, “really pulled at my heartstrings.”