Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Hiawatha Staff Sergeant

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. Giunta, from Hiawatha, Iowa, is the first living veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive the award. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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By Aaron Hepker

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation on Tuesday saluted its first living Medal of Honor winner of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, an Iowa sergeant who retrieved a wounded comrade under gunfire as the Taliban carried the stricken soldier away.

For Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the tribute to his heroism was bittersweet, because it was a bloody day in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and the soldier he brought back later died.

"I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now," he said on the rain-soaked White House driveway after President Barack Obama hung the blue ribbon that cradled the medal around Giunta's neck.

Far from the perilous ridge where his unit was attacked on a moonlit night in October 2007, Giunta stood in the glittering East Room, in the company of military brass, past Medal of Honor winners, his surviving comrades and families as the president described the harrowing attack and the sergeant's actions beyond the call of duty.

Giunta "charged headlong into the wall of bullets," Obama said. The sergeant at first pulled a soldier with a leg wound back to safety, then sprinted ahead to find two Taliban fighters carrying his seriously wounded friend, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan, away.

"Sal never broke stride," Obama said. "He leapt forward. He took aim. He killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off."

As bullets rained, Giunta dragged Brennan by his vest to cover and worked feverishly to stop the bleeding until the wounded Americans were flown from the ridge. Brennan and another platoon member, medic Hugo V. Mendoza, died. Five were wounded.

"It had been as intense and violent a fire fight as any soldier will experience,' Obama said.

The standards for achieving the nation's highest military honor are so high that many recipients are only so honored in death. Giunta was struck twice, one bullet hitting his body armor, the other hitting one of his weapons.

"I'm going to go off script here and just say, 'I really like this guy," Obama said. He had first met the soft-spoken 25-year-old in the Oval Office earlier.

"We all just get a sense of people and who they are," the president said. "And when you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about, and it just makes you proud."

Forty-two Americans died in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a deadly sliver of Afghan real estate that insurgents use to move weapons and fighters from Pakistan.

U.S. troops pulled out of the perilous valley and other remote areas about seven months ago when commanders decided it was best to use forces to protect civilian population centers. That strategy was judged smarter than keeping troops in scattered isolated outposts highly exposed to attacks from Taliban, al-Qaida and other foreign fighters.

The area's rugged terrain, caves and trees provided cover for insurgents wanting to attack small American units patrolling the valley. But despite years of clashes and airstrikes, U.S. and Afghan forces failed to subdue the Korengal Valley — one of the most staunchly anti-American regions in Afghanistan.

In June 2005, three Navy SEALs were killed when their four-man team was ambushed by militants. A helicopter sent to rescue the SEALs was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Sixteen American troops aboard were killed in what is one of the deadliest single attacks on the U.S. military since the war began.

No U.S. forces remain in the Korengal Valley itself.

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