CEDAR RAPIDS — Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta told members of the senior class at Kennedy High School he is confident they will change the world for the better.
On Tuesday night, the 2003 Kennedy graduate presented the first Sal Giunta Scholarship to graduating senior Abi Gray, 18, of Cedar Rapids.
One of the decisive factors in Gray’s selection for the $1,000 award is her commitment to community service, said Giunta, 27.
The scholarship, endowed by the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation, also pays tribute to the memory of Giunta’s fallen comrades — Sgt. Josh Brennan and Spc. Hugo Mendoza — who were killed in the Oct. 25, 2007, Taliban attack in which Giunta was recognized for extreme bravery.
Doug LaViolette of Oneida, Wis., whose son Brian drowned in 1992 at age 15, said his family established the foundation to ensure that his son’s commitment to making a positive difference lives on. The foundation will present 40 scholarships this year, he said.
After 7 1/2 years in the Army, Giunta ended his military service on June 13, 2011, and the Oct. 6 birth of Lillian Grace Giunta has smoothed his transition to civilian life, he said.
“People told me, ‘it’s going to change your life.’ But I figured I’d been through a few life-changing events and would take it in stride,” said Giunta, who grew up in Hiawatha.
“Well, it’s turned my life upside down in the most positive way,” he said.
Giunta, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife Jennifer and their daughter, said he travels about 20 days a month delivering speeches for the Washington Speakers Bureau. His audiences include corporations, military and veterans groups.
He said he especially enjoys talking with ROTC and active duty military. “The people who have written a blank check to America, in an amount up to and including their lives — they are the people I want to talk to,” he said
Giunta said he still misses the camaraderie of the Army units he served with and acknowledged that combat — while “ugly and horrific” — entailed a high level of excitement.
“The buzz I get from speaking to 500 people kind of takes its place,” he said.
Giunta said he declined to re-enlist because he understood that his celebrity would preclude his preferred role as a combat soldier.
“I joined to jump out of planes and fight bad guys, and that was not going to happen any more,” he said.
Giunta said he plans to attend college starting in January but is not sure what course of study he will pursue.
President Barack Obama presented the medal to Giunta at a White House ceremony on Nov. 16, 2010.
Citing official accounts of the battle, Obama said Giunta repeatedly risked his life to save the other men in his unit when they were attacked by a numerically superior Taliban force in Afghanistan.
The initial salvos killed Mendoza, the squad’s medic, and riddled its point man, Brennan, with at least six gunshot wounds.
Giunta coordinated the squad’s defense and repeatedly charged through enemy rounds, first to assist the squad leader and then to rescue Brennan, killing and wounding the two Taliban fighters who were dragging away his close personal friend.
Brennan later died of his wounds while being transported from the battlefield.