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Originally published November 16, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified November 17, 2010 at 4:20 PM

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Top military honor comes with price of lost friends

Salvatore Giunta, caught in a nighttime ambush in eastern Afghanistan, stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters...

Rare since 2001

Seven other service members have been awarded Medals of Honor, all posthumously, for operations since September 2001. According to Pentagon statistics, 464 were awarded during World War II, 133 during the Korean conflict and 246 during the Vietnam War. An analysis by Army Times last year said that, on average, two or three Medals of Honor were awarded per 100,000 service personnel in previous wars — but that the rate for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had averaged one per million.

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WASHINGTON — Salvatore Giunta, caught in a nighttime ambush in eastern Afghanistan, stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters who were carrying a mortally wounded friend away.

Three years later, the Army staff sergeant on Tuesday became the first living service member since the Vietnam War to receive the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor.

Far from the perilous ridge where his unit was attacked, Giunta, now 25, stood in the glittering White House East Room, in the company of military brass, past Medal of Honor winners, his surviving comrades and families as President Obama hung the blue ribbon cradling the medal around Giunta's neck.

"I really like this guy," Obama said earlier in an off-script remark that drew applause. "When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about."

The Hiawatha, Iowa, man was an Army specialist on the night of Oct. 25, 2007. He and other soldiers of Company B, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment were part of a campaign to provide food, winter clothing and medical care to Afghans in remote villages.

They were ambushed from three sides in the Korengal Valley, a since-abandoned region of Kunar province after months of patrols that cost the U.S. military 42 American lives.

"The moon was full; the light it cast was enough to travel by without using their night-vision goggles," Obama said, with Giunta standing at his side, looking straight ahead. "They hadn't traveled a quarter-mile before the silence was shattered. It was an ambush so close that the cracks of the guns and the whizzes of the bullets were simultaneous."

The two lead squad men went down. So did a third who was struck in the helmet. Giunta charged into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety, Obama said. Giunta was hit twice but was protected by his body armor.

The sergeant could see the other two wounded Americans, Obama recounted.

By now, the East Room was so silent you could hear a rustle from across the room. One Army officer took out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

Giunta looked down as the president described how he and his squad mates threw grenades, using them as cover to run toward the wounded soldiers. All this, they did under constant fire, Obama said. Finally, they reached one of the men. As other soldiers tended to him, Giunta sprinted ahead.

"He crested a hill alone with no cover but the dust kicked up by the storm of bullets still biting into the ground," Obama said.

There, Giunta saw "a chilling sight": the silhouettes of two insurgents carrying away the other wounded American — one of his best friends, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan. Giunta leapt forward and fatally shot one insurgent while wounding the other. The soldier rushed to his friend, dragged him to cover, then tried to stop the bleeding, for 30 minutes, until help arrived.

Brennan died of his wounds. So did Spc. Hugo V. Mendoza, the platoon medic. Five others were wounded.

"It had been as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience," Obama said. "By the time it was finished, every member of First Platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear."

The ceremony, which followed the formal announcement of the honor in September, was attended by members of Giunta's family and his unit, as well as top military officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Other Medal of Honor recipients also were present.

"You may believe that you don't deserve this honor," Obama told Giunta, "but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it. In fact, your commander specifically said in his recommendation that you lived up to the standards of the most decorated American soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy, who famously repelled an overwhelming enemy attack by himself for one simple reason: 'They were killing my friends.' "

Speaking to reporters later, Giunta said the honor was "bittersweet."

"I lost two dear friends of mine," he said. "I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now."

Obama called Giunta, who also has a Bronze Star to his credit, "a soldier as humble as he is heroic."

"He'll tell you that he didn't do anything special, that he was just doing his job, that any of his brothers in the unit would do the same thing," the president said during the ceremony. "In fact, he just lived up to what his team leader instructed him to do years before: 'You do everything you can.' "

Compiled from The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Tribune Washington bureau.

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