WASHINGTON -- Under a bright Afghan moon, eight U.S. paratroopers trudged along a ridge in the Korengal Valley, unaware they were walking right into a trap. Less than 20 feet away, a band of Taliban fighters executed the ambush plan perfectly, enveloping the paratrooper squad in an explosion of bullets and grenades.
Army Spec. Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old from Hiawatha, Iowa, was knocked flat by the gunfire; luckily, a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers tried to gather their senses and scramble for a shred of cover, Giunta reacted instinctively, running straight into the teeth of the ambush to aid three wounded soldiers, one by one, who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, and most of the others sustained serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for the bravery of Giunta, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
On Friday, the White House announced that President Barack Obama has decided to award Giunta, now a sergeant, the Medal of Honor.
He will become the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor who has served in any war since Vietnam.
Giunta, now 25, and his family did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Officials at the Pentagon and White House declined to comment.
But details of Giunta's act of heroism can be gleaned from interviews he gave to journalists who covered his unit's deployment to Afghanistan, a public account from his brigade commander and statements from his fellow soldiers.
"Everything slowed down and I did everything I thought I could do, nothing more and nothing less," Giunta told author Sebastian Junger, who gives a detailed account of the 2007 ambush in his latest book, "War." "I did what I did because that's what I was trained to do."
As gunfire and grenades erupted, the paratrooper's medic, Spec. Hugo Mendoza, was hit in the leg and bled to death.
Giunta also was knocked flat. But then he saw Gallardo ahead of him on the trail and lunged forward, dodging enemy fire to reach the staff sergeant, who survived.
Army Spec. Franklin Eckrode was seriously wounded and stuck with a jammed weapon. Giunta and two other paratroopers jumped up and rushed to his aid.
As the two paratroopers reached Eckrode and stopped to help, Giunta kept going. Over the ridgeline, he saw two Taliban fighters dragging away Sgt. Joshua Brennan, who had taken the brunt of the fire as the lead paratrooper on the trail. Brennan had been shot in the jaw, the back and several other places.
Giunta killed one Taliban fighter and drove off the other. He then tried to keep Brennan alive until a medevac helicopter could get there.
The chopper arrived and whisked Brennan away. His wounds, however, were too serious. He died several hours later.