The elections are over. Our nation looks like a Jr. High cafeteria after a food fight. It’s the aftermath of thousands of American candidates and millions in the American electorate throwing mud at each other, and we now all are in need of a shower. That is what out-of-control, unchecked pride looks like.
And this week, we’ve seen the opposite of that pride. And his name is U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta.
If you haven’t seen a newspaper in the past week, here’s what happened back in 2007 in the Cornwall Valley in Afghanistan. Which is also called the Valley of Death. Or by some, “Hell on Earth”.
On October 25, the seven troops of 1st Platoon was heading back to base on a moonlit evening. Sgt. Brennan was in the lead, followed by Specialist Eckrode, Sgt. Gallardo and Rifle Team Leaders Giunta.
“The world happened at that next step,” recalled Giunta in a 60 Minutes interview. The Taliban performed an L-shaped ambush, pinning down the soldiers. The two in front, Brennan and Eckrode were shot, defenseless, and exposed in the open.
Giunta threw grenades and shot to reach his fallen friends. After being shot twice in protective armor, he made it to Eckrode, but then saw the unfathomable. Two Taliban soldiers were carrying the lead soldier, Sgt. Brennan away. Perhaps at that moment, Giunta realized that capturing an American soldier would be seen as a victory for the Taliban. Or – if they captured Brennan, they would tirelessly be searching for him in the upcoming weeks in the most dangerous place on the planet. Or – he thought about how Brennan was his best friend. Or – as a soldier, his job was to protect those who needed to be protected.
Regardless of his reason, Giunta defied every self-preservation instinct he had. He ran towards the danger and his friend. He killed one of the kidnapping Taliban soldiers and wounded the other who immediately fled. Giunta then made it to Sgt. Brennan and brought him to safety.
Sadly, the nearly captured Sgt. Brennan later died of his wounds, but Gallardo recounted, “He knew it was us now … he saw us fighting for him.”
And since Brennan knew the character of his fellow soldiers, I bet he wasn’t surprised.
That happened in just three minutes over three years ago. And this week, Sgt. Giunta is the first living soldier since Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor from the President.
But the events of that day were half the story. Now, Giunta is probably as uncomfortable in the spotlight as he was to sleep on the ground in battle fatigues. He is saddened to tears that he is being singled out and praised as a hero when he is surrounded by so many remarkable soldiers every day.
“I’m average. I’m mediocre,” he insists.
And that statement is in perfect contrast to what we’ve heard during the election where we saw Americans exaggerating their own importance and abilities, while destroying the reputation of others.
Sergent Giunta is what honor looks like. It’s defending the defenseless. It’s a willingness to trade your life for something you believe in. And most of all, it’s deflecting personal praise towards something greater.
And seeing all the mud slung in the past month, Sergent Giunta is reminding us how we should act. During the election, we looked into the face of selfish ambition intent on taking others down. And now, seeing Giunta, we’ve looked in the face of honor.