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Tale of Two Heroes: Iowa's Last Medal of Honor Winner Impressed with Giunta
FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida - Col. George Day, the last Iowan to earn the Medal of Honor, said he hopes to attend the Tuesday White House presentation of the nation's highest military honor to fellow Iowan and Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.
"I want to attend this kid's presentation. I am most impressed with his courage, integrity and humility," said Day, 85, a Sioux City native, now of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Day himself a survivor of several combat injuries and unremitting torture during 67 months as a prisoner of war in Vietnam said he especially admires how Giunta, formerly of Hiawatha, has repeatedly called attention to the skill and valor of the other members of his eight-man squad. Giunta and his fellow soldiers were ambushed in October 2007 by a numerically superior Taliban force in Afghanistan.
Day said Giunta's courage in combat he is credited with repulsing attackers that killed two of his comrades and his public comments and demeanor have helped to burnish the image of the American soldier, which Day calls the best in the world.
"One, they are all well-motivated volunteers. Two, they are highly experienced, frequently recycling through combat zones, and three, with their advanced training, weaponry and teamwork, they are extremely lethal," said Day, a veteran of three wars and more than 30 years' military service.
"Americans are getting more bang for their buck with today's troops than we ever have," said Day, who still practices law in Florida.
Though Day has not yet spoken with Giunta, he has talked via telephone with the soldier's parents, Steven and Rose Giunta of Hiawatha.
The Giuntas said Day has helped prepare them for the attention that has surrounded them since the Sept. 10 announcement of their son's honor. Day also has helped them understand how the medal is likely to change their son's life, they said.
Day said "it has been an enormous honor and privilege" to receive the nation's highest military honor.
"It has given me many opportunities to meet exceptional people, all of whom treat you with the utmost kindness and respect," said Day, a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam on Aug. 27, 1967.
Somewhat tongue in cheek, Day said the honor, which impresses upon its recipients a responsibility for decorum at all times, may have limited his participation in the camaraderie he once enjoyed with fellow pilots at the officers' club.
Day said he believes the Iowa work ethic he shares with Giunta provides an excellent foundation for military service.
"I think he is a typical, great Iowa kid who knows how to get things done. Give me 20 kids from Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas, and I'm ready to go in harm's way with them," he said.
Born Feb. 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Day joined the Marine Corps in 1942 and served 30 months in the South Pacific as a non-commissioned officer in World War II. Appointed second lieutenant in the National Guard in 1950, he was called to active duty in the Air Force in 1951 and served two tours as a fighter-bomber pilot during the Korean War.
Later in Vietnam, then Maj. Day was forced to eject from his F-100 jet during his 141st combat sortie over North Vietnam when it was hit by ground fire. With his right arm broken in three places and his left knee badly sprained, he was captured by hostile forces, imprisoned and tortured.
Day later escaped into the jungle, living on berries and raw frogs as he made his way toward South Vietnam. Despite injuries inflicted by projectile fragments, he evaded enemy patrols and reached the Ben Hai River, which he crossed with a bamboo log float into the demilitarized zone. Delirious, he lost his sense of direction and wandered aimlessly for several days before the Viet Cong shot him in his left hand and thigh and recaptured him.
Throughout his 67 months as a prisoner of war and despite his debilitating injuries, Day repeatedly gave his captors false information and offered maximum resistance, according to his Medal of Honor citation. His personal bravery in the face of deadly enemy pressure saved the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying against the enemy, the citation said.
Day, the only POW to escape from prison in the South, is the nation's most highly decorated officer, as well as the most decorated since Gen. Douglass MacArthur. His uniform can barely accommodate his nearly 70 military decorations and awards, of which more than 50 are for combat.