Salvatore “Sal” Giunta would just as soon have skipped being the first living Medal of Honor winner since the Vietnam War.
But Giunta — who grew up in Hiawatha and joined the Army to get a free T-shirt — has learned to live with the nation’s highest military honor, to accept the accolades and pageantry as symbolic of something much bigger than one soldier.
We get to share Giunta’s journey in his newly released memoir, “Living with Honor” (Threshold Editions, 294 pages, $26), an engaging coming-of-age story that is funny and moving and filled with detail, a book that communicates, as well as any I’ve read, what a soldier’s life is like in modern-day combat.
This self-described “ordinary guy,” however, demonstrated extraordinary courage the night of Oct. 27, 2007, when his patrol was ambushed on Honcho Hill in Afghanistan, when he fought off two insurgents trying to carry off a wounded U.S. soldier. Two of his friends would die that night.
Giunta, with the help of writer Joe Layden, tells his story chronologically — about the average student at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, more interested in wrestling, golfing, football and running around with his friends than in his classes. Cocky, confident and headstrong — yes, he frustrated his parents, Steven and Rosemary Giunta — but he also learned a valuable skill in school and one that would serve him well in the military: “Knowing when to pull back from the abyss of stupidity.”
Giunta, now 27, a civilian, husband and father living in Colorado, writes that he was working as a “sandwich artist” at Subway when he heard a radio ad for the Army and enlisted. He decided he wanted to be a paratrooper when he saw a picture of a “sky soldier” on a Time magazine cover.
Giunta’s account of basic training in Georgia and in Germany is enormously entertaining, as he and his buddies jump out of airplanes, sit all day in holes full of rainwater, march for hours with heavy packs, shoot live rounds around each other, deal with boredom.
In the vast melting pot of the U.S. Army, the fun-loving kid from Iowa learns discipline and respect, how to do 100 push-ups — then 50 more — and how to befriend and fight alongside people totally unlike himself.
That journey of self-discovery deepens when Giunta, a SAW machine-gunner with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, reaches the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.
“I began looking at the war differently, began seeing it not as an adventure or a game, or even a job with clear and attainable goals, but rather as a complex and extraordinarily dangerous situation,” Giunta writes.
In combat, a sergeant tells him, “chances are they’re going to take more from you than you feel like you owed them.”
Conditions, especially on Giunta’s second deployment in the Korengal Valley in northeast Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, are dangerous. Insurgent activity is heavy. The mountain outposts are primitive, with scorpions and bugs, no electricity, no running water. Giunta’s words help you feel the soldiers’ thirst, their fatigue, their frustration in dealing with villagers who don’t want them there, the chaos of combat.
“Combat,” Giunta writes, “is life distilled to its essence.” And war is “bloody and it’s gross and it’s gruesome; it’s always sick and mean. … There is hatred in those bullets.”
Giunta is matter-of-fact and sparse in detailing the night his patrol was ambushed in the “Valley of Death,” where he risks his life to help others. He knows they would have done the same for him, had their positions been reversed.
And that’s one reason he has trouble understanding why he is being recommended for the Medal of Honor: “How can I be so great if I allowed two of my friends to get killed? … I did what I was supposed to do, and I know for a fact that others behaved just as courageously.”
Nonetheless, Giunta is singled out. In the two years since President Obama draped the Medal of Honor around Giunta’s neck at the White House, Giunta has learned to live with its heavy weight.
And now this “regular guy” does us the honor of sharing his story — the story of many a young soldier — in an honest, humble and straightforward fashion. You get to know, and like, the men he served with, his brothers in arms.
Regardless of what you think of the war in Afghanistan, this is a book about courage and grace and friendship, a book well worth reading.