2 soldiers share heroes' bond

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta listens to fellow recipient retired Army Lt. Col. Bruce 'Snake' Crandall at The Citadel on Tuesday.

Wade Spees

They are mirror images of each other. Soft-spoken men who earned the nation's highest military honor for selfless acts that occurred four decades apart.

Lt. Col. Bruce "Snake" Crandall, 78, flew 22 repeat missions in an unarmed helicopter over Vietnam by running through heavy enemy fire to bring ammunition in and the wounded out.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 26, was caught in an ambush in Afghanistan but went on the offensive when two insurgents attempted to carry off a wounded fellow soldier.

And just like many of the 84 other living Medal of Honor recipients, the younger Giunta still has mixed feelings about why the medal was placed around his neck -- feelings Crandall is helping him to overcome.

"One of the things that I see in him, that I see in every one of us ... is that

right off he didn't think he did anything to deserve the medal, and that he was just doing his job," Crandall said. "It took a little while for me to get it in his head that's the way we all felt, because we were all just doing our job."

The two heroes visited The Citadel campus Tuesday where, just like rock stars, they posed for pictures, shared their stories with cadets and spoke about the best qualities of leadership.

"Lead from the front," Giunta said. "Lead by example. Choose the harder right, rather than the easy wrong."

The appearance represented one of the dozens of visits the living Medal of Honor recipients make every year to discuss their experiences with audiences of all ages. Even so, Giunta said the medal and its celebrity is not what he envisioned when he joined the Army after high school.

"This is not a comfortable spot for me," he told reporters. "I did not join the U.S. Army because I thought I wanted to talk in front of a whole bunch of cameras."

Their stories represent incidents of heroism rising out of bad situations. In 2007, Giunta, now of Colorado, was a rifle team leader in the Korengal Valley when his platoon was hit after five days in the field. Recovering quickly, he stepped into what was described as "a wall of bullets" to run down two Taliban fighters who were carrying a mortally wounded soldier away. He became the first new living medal recipient in nearly 40 years.

"I've never seen so many bullets travel in such a small space," Giunta said of the firefight.

Giunta said his memories of that time are not so much what he did that night, but of the men he'd served with, or who didn't come home.

"These are men who beat as much in my heart, and yet you all only know my name," he said.

Crandall was an unarmed helicopter pilot who flew multiple missions to rescue 70 wounded Americans in one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War. The flights during the 1965 Battle at Ia Drang Valley were part of Mel Gibson's 2002 film "We Were Soldiers," adapted from the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young."

During his day-long rescue attempts, Crandall said his biggest fears were not of his own safety but what it meant if he failed in the slightest.

"What scared me is, I didn't want to screw up and have the unit on the ground suffer more dead and wounded than they had to," said Crandall, of Washington state.

The pair, who said they have a sort of mentor relationship, agreed that even with their recognitions, the medal remains much bigger than them.

"Getting the award is not the toughest part, it's living up to it," Crandall said.

One of those in the audience said hearing the soldiers' stories should be mandatory in schools today. "If they reach just one kid, it will all be worth it," said Coast Guard veteran Dave Horner of Summerville.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.