Though Sal Giunta would never have been voted most likely to succeed in the Kennedy High School Class of 2003, the soldier from Hiawatha has earned more acclaim in seven years than his classmates will likely ever attain.
The somewhat aimless class clown who often tested his parents’ patience will receive the nation’s highest military honor at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the White House.
Just 3,470 medals have been awarded since the Medal of Honor’s inception during the Civil War. Giunta will become the 3,471st recipient.
“I am not at all surprised that he would perform heroically in combat,” said Jared Dolter, 26, of Cedar Rapids, one of Giunta’s best friends and a classmate at Kennedy High School.
“I would say he has always been loyal to his friends, and that is the quality that stood out” in Giunta’s actions during a 2007 attack on his unit in Afghanistan, Dolter said.
On Oct. 25, 2007, during his second tour in Afghanistan, then 22-year-old Spc. Giunta was part of an eight-man squad ambushed at night by a superior Taliban force armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Giunta, now 25 and a staff sergeant, charged into the withering fire to rescue wounded comrades and helped kill or drive off the attackers, forcing them to release a captive U.S. soldier, Sgt. Josh Brennan.
Brennan and Spc. Hugo Mendoza, both close friends of Giunta, died of wounds suffered in the attack, and everyone else in the squad either suffered wounds or their protective equipment stopped enemy rounds. Giunta’s armored vest stopped one potentially fatal round, and a weapon slung on his back stopped another.
The word “loyalty,” which Giunta epitomized in his high-risk efforts to save his brothers in arms, came up frequently in conversations with Giunta’s friends, family and faculty at Kennedy. He is also described as independent, fun-loving, humble and morally upright.
“It doesn’t surprise me even a little bit that Sal did what he did. He was always a really loyal guy who came through for his friends,” said another Kennedy classmate, Jake Settle, 26, of Chicago, who recalled an incident from their high school days to illustrate his point.
After a girlfriend’s car got stuck in a remote area late at night, she wanted to call for a tow truck, Settle said.
“I said, ‘Give me 20 minutes,’ and I called Sal. He said, ‘I’ll be there, and I’ll help you.’ Within 20 minutes, he was there with friends, and the problem was solved,” Settle said.
The two people who had the most to do with shaping Giunta’s character, his mom and dad, say they are proud to have helped instill his determination to always do the right thing.
“There is no doubt we molded some of his character. God did, too,” said Rosemary Giunta, 52. “Sal always had a strong desire to do things right. You could tell he wanted to leave a mark.”
Rosemary Giunta said faith is important to her eldest son. “I do know he loves the Lord. I don’t know if he always follows Him,” she said.
Steve Giunta, 51, said his son “had a very competitive, adventurous side” that would be consistent with his bravery in combat. Those same characteristics made his son a challenge to raise, he said. “He kept things very lively.”
Kennedy Principal Mary Wilcynski recalled that Giunta did not always “see eye to eye with his parents.”
Being his parent “has been hard and wonderful at the same time,” said Rosemary Giunta, who described her son as a daredevil. “He was not afraid to try things. He took a picture of himself jumping out of an airplane at paratrooper school.”
The adolescent Giunta “was very cheerful and fun to be around. He would gather up people and say, ‘Come this way. We are going to have fun together,’ ” Steve Giunta said.
His son’s greatest attribute, he said, “was his capacity for friendship.”
In the wake of the celebrity that has enveloped his son, Steve Giunta said he has been impressed with his son’s humility.
Calling the recognition bittersweet because of the deaths of two of his son’s closest friends, Steve Giunta said, “He will accept the medal for all the people who were there that day. He knows he was just one of the brush strokes that made up the picture.”
The Giuntas said they are proud that their son’s demeanor and remarks since President Barack Obama announced the award on Sept. 10 have helped to elevate the status of the American soldier.
“When I heard him say he is just the average American soldier, it made perfect sense to me — that he was saying the typical American soldier is well-trained, experienced and highly capable and proficient,” Steve Giunta said.
In conventional terms, Sal Giunta had a lackluster high school career.
“He was not a great athlete, and he was not the best student,” friend and classmate Dolter said.
“There were no discipline referrals, but he was capable of getting someone’s goat for a laugh,” said Kennedy Athletics Director Aaron Stecker, who was Giunta’s football coach.
“His strengths were friendship, loyalty and hard work. His friends knew they could count on him, no matter what,” Stecker said.
Michelle Frye, a language arts teacher at Kennedy, said she does not remember the grades Giunta earned, “but I do remember the kind of person he was.”
Frye described him as a special kid, who was funny, sincere and always engaged in classroom discussions.
“There was nothing phony about him. He knew who he was and was comfortable in his own skin,” she said.
Frye said she still remembers Giunta’s favorite word, “metacognition,” which means awareness of one’s own mental processes.
When she thinks of Giunta, she said, the word “integrity” comes to mind.
“I would put him up there with Atticus Finch,” she said, referring to the hero of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a Southern country lawyer who braved the disapproval of his neighbors to defend an innocent black man.
Stecker said Giunta always put the team ahead of himself, just as he did later when his unit fell under deadly attack.
“It does not surprise me that he put his unit ahead of his own safety,” Stecker said.
As a football player, Giunta made his contributions on special teams and the scout team, Stecker said.
“He was not an all-star who stood out, but he loved being out for the team. He enjoyed his friends and the experience,” Stecker said.
Principal Wilcynski described Giunta as “a good kid, very bright, a decent student” who was not overly absorbed in planning his future while in high school. Even so, she said, “No one would doubt that he would figure out something that made sense for him.”
Stecker said he was a B student who did not have his future mapped out while he was in high school.
He was “an enjoy the moment” person, not “a plan for the future person,” agreed Frye.
While Kennedy faculty members are proud of Giunta’s accomplishments and proud to have been a part of his formative years, Frye said his teachers deserve no credit for the soldier’s accomplishments.
“You can’t teach loyalty and heroism,” she said.
Another close friend and Kennedy classmate, Jake Dwhytie of Toronto, said he doubts that Giunta ever thought about becoming a hero. “He stepped up under the pressure, and that does not surprise me at all,” he said.
Dwhytie, 25, recalls Giunta as fun to be around and has especially fond memories of nighttime catfishing expeditions with him on the Iowa River. “We sat around in deck chairs and talked and caught a lot of catfish,” he said.
Settle, a participant in some of those catfish outings, said Giunta was the best kind of teammate on the Cougar football squad. “He was a tough guy, who brushed off injuries, but his sense of humor helped to keep everyone loose,” Settle said.
Dolter said Giunta befriended him when he was a new student at Harding Middle School.
“He always had his own ideas, his own way of doing things. He was the kind of guy you could ask to do anything, and if he was your friend, he would do it,” Dolter said.