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Medal of Honor Recipient: Do the Hard Right

FullTextImage/img/@altStaff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta chats with cadets in Jackson Memorial Hall following his closing address to the VMI Leadership Conference. -- VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.

The 500-seat Gillis Theater on the VMI post was filled to capacity with high school and college students and teachers from across the nation as VMI’s second biennial Leadership Conference, “Cheating, Lying and Honor in America’s High Schools, Colleges and Universities,” opened Monday. The conference concluded yesterday, when the current generation of students took the lead in discussing and presenting strategies for encouraging academic and personal integrity.

LEXINGTON, Va., March 7, 2012 – VMI’s Leadership Conference closed late yesterday afternoon with perhaps the most entertaining talk of all, given by a man who has both led and followed with integrity and under fire.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who received the Medal of Honor in November 2010 for gallantry, courage, and leadership when his unit was ambushed in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 2007, addressed the conference in Cameron Hall. Afterward, he talked with the VMI Corps of Cadets more intimately in Jackson Memorial Hall and then dined with the cadets in Crozet Hall.

His most direct piece of advice to those gathered for a conference on lying, cheating, and honor was to do right.

“Right is not always the easiest path,” he told the group before narrating the events that led to his receiving the Medal of Honor. “It’s up to you whether you’re going to choose the easy wrong or the hard right. That’s a simple decision, but it’s up to us.”

Giunta explained how, at 18, he had been living a life without direction, making sandwiches at a restaurant, when a TV commercial lured him to the U.S. Army recruitment office, where the recruiter told him the truth.

“He told me straight out,” said Giunta. “We are a country at war. I was old enough to join the military, if I wanted to make a difference.”

The idea of making a difference was one Giunta hadn’t considered.

“He knew I was feeding people, but …” quipped Giunta regarding his then-mission in life. He told how he considered the benefits and drawbacks of enlisting, including having to leave his home town, drawing laughs from the audience when he concluded, “I thought, ‘I’m in Iowa; I’m ready to go away.’”

Enthusiastic about serving his country during his first tour in Afghanistan beginning in March 2005 – “At that time in my life, I’d never prepared for anything as long as I’d prepared for war” – he was seeing things very differently by August, when he experienced the death of a friend for the first time. He learned lessons that apply across life experience.

“I learned that the good guys don’t always win, and the best team isn’t going to come out unscathed and in war there’s winners and losers every day.” But advice was there in the form of good leaders to listen to.

“If you did everything you could when it was your time to give,” he was told, “you can’t be upset with yourself.”

“It turned out to be solid truth. As good as gold. We did our job. We did exactly what we were supposed to do.”

It was a lesson and an approach he would use again and again including on that fateful day during his second tour when his squad was ambushed.

Then a specialist and rifle team leader, Giunta followed squad leader Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, a leader he believed in, into fire.

“A good follower,” he told the cadets in his Jackson Memorial Hall chat, “is someone who believes in you. … You can say, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to go to hell, and it’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be dangerous.’ A good follower will follow you anywhere you want to go.”

That’s because a good leader, said Giunta, leads by actions, which will speak louder than words.

“You don’t have to remind people you’re the boss,” he told the cadets. “Prove to us you’re the boss. Lead us like the boss, and you’ll be treated like the boss.”

On that day in October 2007, Giunta expected to follow the staff sergeant into battle only to see him fall wounded. From that point Giunta made the decisions that the ensuring moments required, sometimes acting on his own and sometimes leading members of his team, along the way saving lives.

“I did nothing special. I did nothing heroic. I did absolutely everything I was trained to do,” Giunta.

During his time in Afghanistan, Giunta lost 26 friends.

‘That time in my life has made me sadder and madder than anything in my entire life,” said Giunta. “Because of this, the day the Medal of Honor was put around my neck was the day I felt the weight of the war.”

The Medal holds deep meaning for Giunta.

“It has everything to do with all the people who are willing to stand up for what’s right, who are willing to choose hard right instead of the easy wrong, who are willing to give of themselves to help someone else – all those men and women who have sacrificed so much so that we could have this life.

“The Medal of Honor represents the best, the brightest, the strongest, the quickest, and the fastest. … On that day I was none of those; I was just one person on that mountain trying to make a bad situation better.”

Being the one trying to make a bad situation better is something many cadets aspire to, and Giunta several times stated his enthusiasm about visiting VMI and the training VMI cadets receive.

“I’m stoked for all of you,” he said.

Giunta was the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, the first living service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, and the eighth service member to receive the nation's highest military decoration for valor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

–Sherri Tombarge, with information provided by John Robertson IV