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At last, hero of ongoing war is alive to receive Medal of Honor

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN
Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta is being awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in battle in Afghanistan in October 2007.
Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta is being awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in battle in Afghanistan in October 2007.
  • Staff Sgt. S. Giunta becomes the first living recipient from Iraq or Afghan fighting
  • He is being honored for action in Afghanistan in October 2007
  • Posthumous Medals of Honor will be given to two others
  • Afghanistan
  • U.S. Army

Find out why most recent Medal of Honor winners have not been alive to receive the honor.

Washington (CNN) -- Medals of Honor have been rare since the end of the Vietnam war. And not one of the recipients from the Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan deployments have been alive to have the iconic blue ribbon with the gold star draped around his neck. Until now.

The White House Friday announced that Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 25, of Hiawatha, Iowa, will be awarded the nation's highest medal for valor for his actions in Afghanistan, and he will come to the White House to receive the medal himself.

A date for the ceremony has not been announced.

Giunta was a specialist serving with the Airborne 503rd Infantry Regiment on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when his unit was attacked on the night of October 25, 2007.

According to Defense Department documents, Giunta and his fellow soldiers were walking back to base along the top of a mountain ridge when the enemy attacked from their front and their left. Taliban fighters barraged the Americans with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and Soviet-era large machine guns.

Giunta saw several of his fellow soldiers go down. He ran forward, throwing grenades and returning enemy fire, to help one soldier who had been shot but was still fighting, the documents say. Then he noticed one of the wounded soldiers was missing.

Searching for his wounded friend Sgt. Josh Brennan, Giunta ran over a hill where moments before Taliban fighters had been shooting at him. Now he was alone, out of sight of his fellow soldiers, in an area that the Taliban had controlled just moments before.

Giunta saw two Taliban fighters dragging Brennan away. He ran after them, killing one and wounding the other, who ran off.

Giunta instantly started providing first aid to Brennan, who had been shot at least six times, the documents say. Eventually a medic arrived and a helicopter was called in to take Brennan to a hospital, but he later died of his wounds.

Giunta's action, however, meant that Brennan was not at the mercy of the Taliban, and his parents would be able to give him a proper burial instead of wondering what became of him.

Giunta's quick response to the Taliban attack also helped his unit repulse the enemy fighters before they could cause more casualties, the Defense Department documents note.

Giunta was shot twice, with one round hitting his body armor and the second destroying a weapon slung over his back. He was not seriously hurt.

President Barack Obama called Giunta, a native of Hiawatha, Iowa, on Thursday to inform him of the honor and to thank him for "extraordinary bravery in battle," a White House statement said.

Giunta, who was recently married, is currently with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry based in Vicenza, Italy. "He is responsible for the health, morale, welfare, training and accountability of all assigned personnel," the Army said. He has served two combat tours in Afghanistan.

Since the Vietnam war the only Medals of Honor not given posthumously have been those that were awarded after actions were reconsidered. Among those was Vernon Baker, an African-American solider who performed heroically fighting the Nazis in Italy, but didn't get the award until 1997 because of racism in the military during World War II. Baker passed away this past July.

For the past several years, the Pentagon has made a concerted effort to recognize the valor of a living soldier, Marine, sailor or airman.

"This has been a source of real concern to me," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year. "I think it was one of President Bush's real regrets that he did not have the opportunity to honor a living Medal of Honor recipient. Gates also was defense chief in the final two years of Bush's administration.

On Thursday, the White House announced that Obama will award the Medal of Honor posthumously to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller for "conspicuous gallantry" and "heroic actions" in Afghanistan in January 2008. Miller sacrificed his life "to save the lives of his teammates and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers," the White House said.

And last week the White House announced that Obama also intends to award the Medal of Honor to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger for his valor in saving the lives of three wounded comrades at a then-secret base in Laos in 1968. Enemy fighters shot and killed Etchberger after he saved his fellow airmen.

Fewer than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the medal was established during the Civil War. According to the medal criteria, recipients must demonstrate "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty."