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Awarded nation's highest honor, soldier says he felt 'lost,' 'angry'

By Barbara Starr and David Fitzpatrick, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam
  • Taliban ambushed Giunta's squadron in Afghanistan
  • Giunta saves buddy from Taliban kidnapping, but Brennan dies of wounds the next day

Vicenza, Italy (CNN) -- He's only 25 now, an Army paratrooper stationed at the headquarters of the 173rd Airborne at a sprawling base near Vicenza in northern Italy.

As the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, Sal Giunta has had plenty of media attention heaped on him. But this staff sergeant is determined to make the medal, at least symbolically, belong to others.

"When I first heard that they were putting me in for the Medal of Honor, I felt lost, I felt kind of angry, I felt, I think, angry," he said in an exclusive interview. "Just because, you know, this is so big. This is, it came at such a price. It came at the price of a good buddy of mine, not just Brennan. But Mendoza. Mendoza died that night as well. And people want to put a medal around my neck."

Giunta is talking about one of his best Army friends, Sgt. Josh Brennan, whose life he tried to save during a vicious firefight in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in the fall of 2007. Giunta's squadron, with Brennan walking as "point" -- or first man in the front -- was trapped in a deadly ambush by Taliban fighters during a nighttime operation. The squadron's medic, Hugo Mendoza of El Paso, Texas, was caught with the rest of the group.

Home and Away: Share your tributes to Sgt. Brennan and Spc. Mendoza

"People congratulate me on a good job when there's two people that have basically given their entire lives for this mission, for the Army, for the people of the United States of America," Giunta said. "And now, I'm gonna be the one they are gonna shake hands with and congratulate? It didn't seem real and at the same time, what did seem real was that this shouldn't happen."

Giunta, whose armor-plated vest took a bullet during the ambush, saw Taliban fighters dragging away Brennan. Army documents say he immediately began to fire at the two men dragging his buddy away, killing one and driving off the other. Giunta pulled the badly-wounded Brennan to protective cover and stood by him until medical help arrived. Brennan, whose father is a policeman in Madison, Wisconsin, died from his wounds the next day.

"It is a great thing," Giunta said, speaking of the Medal of Honor. "But it is a great thing that has come at a personal loss to myself and so many other families."

And that, he said, is what he wants Americans to know.

"Absolutely," he said. "And not it's just the soldiers out there doing it. It's their families. It's their parents. It's the Mike Brennans of this world. And Mendoza's parents, you know. His brothers and sisters. The families that we leave when we go do this."

"It's not just, we're gonna go fight, but we're gonna leave our families for a while and hope that they can be taken care of," the sergeant explained. "It's a sacrifice that everyone makes, and these two men on that day made the biggest sacrifice anyone can ever make. And it's not for a paycheck."

Giunta's Medal of Honor ceremony will take place in November at the White House. And while his friends Brennan and Mendoza can't be there with him, he knows who can be. And he wants as many of his squadron mates as possible at the presentation.

 
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