The last few moments that Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta spent with one of his best friends were harrowing and heartbreaking: Giunta braved enemy gunfire to pry a wounded Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan from the hands of Taliban insurgents who had fired on their squadron in eastern Afghanistan in 2007.
A few hours later, Brennan died of gunshot wounds. Three years later, Giunta received the Medal of Honor-the military's highest award-for his life-risking valor during the fatal shootout in the Korengal Valley. On Tuesday, the sergeant became the first living soldier to receive the award since the Vietnam War. Giunta's bravery-and the stories of fallen soldiers in one of Afghanistan's most brutal regions-is a stark reminder of a perplexing war with a complex enemy, and the stirring heroism it takes to continue to fight each day.
During a White House ceremony to award Giunta's medal, President Barack Obama told the subdued soldier: "Repeatedly and without hesitation, you charged forward through extreme enemy fire, embodying the warrior ethos that says, 'I will never leave a fallen comrade.'"
That ethos was critical in a place like the Korengal Valley-a six-mile stretch along the Afghan-Pakistani border that's so brutal American soldiers have dubbed it: "The Valley of Death." More than 40 U.S. soldiers died in the insurgent stronghold before American forces withdrew from the post in April. The last soldier killed-Spc. Robert Donevski-jumped a fence and opened fire on insurgents so his comrades could take cover during a surprise enemy attack. Insurgents shot Donevski, 19, in the head as he returned to his squad.
Commanders said that ultimately the valley's residents-extremely isolated, rural farmers who speak their own dialect-weren't willing to help U.S. soldiers drive insurgents from the region. Mostly, they wanted to be left alone, even if it meant harboring the Taliban.
On the night of Oct. 25, 2007, Taliban fighters pounced, as Giunta's squad in the 173rd Airborne Brigade were heading back to their base after patrol: At least a dozen insurgents ambushed the soldiers, fatally wounding Brennan and Sgt. Hugo Mendoza, the squad's medic.
Giunta spent the next three minutes charging into enemy fire to provide cover for his comrades and dragging wounded soldiers to safety. He took two bullets in his body armor before seeing a horrific site: two insurgents hauling off Brennan. Giunta charged the insurgents, killing one. The other fled, and Giunta and his fellow soldiers took a still-conscious Brennan back to base. Brennan, 22, wouldn't live through the night, but he also would not die in the clutches of the enemy.
"The last thing Brennan ever saw was us," Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, the squad's leader, told 60 Minutes. "You know, he saw us fighting for him."
Brennan-a Bronze Star winner who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan-wasn't far from Giunta's mind at the White House ceremony on Tuesday. Neither was Mendoza-the other soldier killed in the ambush. Giunta called the award "a great honor," but added, "I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now." The sergeant said he had mixed feelings about being singled out for such a high honor when other soldiers give more. "I have never given everything," he said. "Sgt. Joshua Brennan gave everything."