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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The soldiers who served with Sal Giunta don't begrudge him his Medal of Honor or the fame that comes with it.
"Not at all," said Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, one of about 30 of the Hiawatha soldier's brothers in arms who attended the Medal of Honor ceremony Tuesday in the East Room of the White House.
Staff Sgt. Giunta, 25, the first living American service member to receive the distinction for service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has been somewhat conflicted at having been singled out among the men in his unit for the honor.
"We were all there together fighting for our lives and each other, I didn't do anything that the others would not have done," Giunta has said repeatedly since President Barack Obama announced the honor on Sept. 10.
Gallardo, 26, who just finished his third tour in Afghanistan a week ago, said he called his friend to congratulate him shortly after the announcement.
"He is always going to be one of my soldiers. We are going to have a brotherhood the rest of our lives," said Gallardo, who was Giunta's squad leader on Oct. 25, 2007, the night that then-Spc. Giunta distinguished himself when his unit came under deadly attack by a numerically superior Taliban ambush squad.
Another soldier who survived the attack, Staff Sgt. Brett Perry, 24, said the soldiers who served with Giunta feel only pride in and happiness for him.
"He's a brother, and we are proud of him. He was in a position to do what he did, and he did it," Perry said.
What he did, according to President Obama and the official accounts of the battle, was to repeatedly risk his life to save the other men in the unit.
"You charged forward through extreme enemy fire, embodying the warrior ethos that says, 'I will never leave a fallen comrade,'" Obama said.
Crediting Giunta with disrupting the attack and preventing the capture of a fellow soldier, Obama described him as "a low-key guy who does not seek the limelight."
"You may believe that you don't deserve this honor, but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it," the President said."
That battle, he said, was as intense and violent a firefight as any soldier will experience. "By the time it was finished, every member of First Platoon had shrapnel or a bullet hole in their gear. Five were wounded. And two gave their lives."
Giunta himself spoke briefly to reporters after the ceremony, reiterating that the deaths of two dear friends has made the experience extremely bittersweet.
"I'd give it (the medal) back in a second to have my friends back with me," he said.
As Giunta and the other seven members of his squad filed down a mountain trail, a force of at least 12 Taliban fighters flawlessly executed a close-range, L-shaped ambush that pinned the U.S. soldiers in a withering crossfire of rifle and machine gun slugs and rocket-propelled grenades.
Gallardo, who has served in combat for 42 of his 84 months in the Army, said it was by far his most harrowing experience.
"In its timing and discipline, it was the perfect ambush. We walked along their flank for more than 50 meters before they opened up on us. They got in on us so tight that our air support was useless," said Gallardo, who was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in the battle.
The initial salvos killed the squad's medic, Spc. Hugo Mendoza, and riddled its point man, Sgt. Josh Brennan, with at least six gunshot wounds.
A bullet struck Gallardo's helmet, rendering him "dazed and confused" for the early part of the approximately 3 minute battle.
Facing intense tracer-laced fire from two directions, then Spc. Giunta coordinated the squad's defense and repeatedly charged through enemy rounds, first to assist the squad leader and then to rescue Brennan, killing and wounding the two Taliban fighters who were dragging away his close personal friend.
Gallardo said the unit's intelligence clearly indicated that the Taliban intended to capture an American soldier that night. Though Giunta foiled that objective, Brennan died of his wounds while being transported from the battlefield.
Like nearly everyone else who has met Giunta, President Obama likes him.
"I'm going to go off script here for a minute and say I really like this guy," Obama said Tuesday in remarks preceding his presentation of the nation's highest military honor to Giunta, who grew up in Hiawatha and graduated from Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School in 2003.
Giunta flashed the impish smile that has endeared him o friends and family for most of the past 25 years.
"That is Sal being Sal. He is a soldier, but his personality comes bubbling to the top," his mother, Rosemary Giunta, 52, of Hiawatha said.
For her, the highlight of Tuesday's ceremony came when Obama offered his condolences, gratitude and admiration to the parents of Brennan and Mendoza, she said.
Giunta's dad, Steven Giunta, 51, of Hiawatha, said his son's humility and desire to share the honor with his comrades is "the real message, the right message, the true message."