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Honor 'bittersweet' for rare living Medal of Honor recipient

By Jennifer Rizzo and Larry Shaughnessy, CNN
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Rare Medal of Honor 'bittersweet'
  • NEW: Staff Sgt. Giunta says he did only what anyone else would have done
  • People he would like to share the honor with "are no longer with us," he says
  • His actions help reduce casualties for his unit, the Defense Department says

Washington (CNN) -- The first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War says his receiving the prestigious award is bittersweet.

"All of this is great," U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said during a teleconference Wednesday. "But it does bring back a lot of memories of people that I would love to share this moment with. And I am just not going to have this opportunity because they are no longer with us."

Giunta said the day his unit came under attack was quiet and started out like any other day in Afghanistan.

"We are all soldiers and we are all out on a mission," he said.

Giunta, 25, was a specialist serving with the Airborne 503 Infantry Regiment on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when his unit was attacked on the night of October 25, 2007. He recalls himself as an average soldier, saying he didn't do anything that someone else wouldn't have done.

According to Defense Department documents seen by CNN, 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.

Video: Hero soldier's parents proud

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. Then he noticed one of the wounded soldiers was missing.

He ran over a hill where moments before Taliban fighters were shooting at him to find his wounded friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan. But 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 Taliban and wounding the other, who ran away.

He instantly started providing first aid to Brennan, who had been shot at least six times. Brennan was later evacuated by a helicopter to a hospital, but he died of his wounds.

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

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

Giunta said his actions were not something he thought about but something he was trained to do.

"After the medevac bird comes in and starts picking people up, it's not over, you're not out of Afghanistan, you're not off the side of the mountain, you're just minus some buddies and there's no time to talk, you still have to complete the mission," he said.

Giunta's wife, Jenny, sat beside him during the teleconference from the base Giunta is stationed at in Vicenza, Italy. She said she is proud of her husband. The two married last November and are unsure about what the future will bring. Jenny Giunta said she hopes her husband does not deploy again.

"Having your husband ... your loved one get deployed and knowing that they're going to be somewhere that's dangerous .... It's an awful feeling," she said.