Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor last night by President Obama - and he's a haunted man. Giunta is psychologically scarred - Obama may be too.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, November 17, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Medal of Honor Winner Suffers for Our Sins
U.S. Army Sgt. Salvatore Giunta became the first living soldier to receive the Medal of Honor since 1976. In a ceremony broadcast around the country, President Obama gushed over this hero - who rescued a comrade from the hands of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But that rescued man - Sgt. Josh Brennan - and another soldier - Medic Hugo Mendoza - died in that encounter (Latino Americans are strongly overrperesented among soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan). Giunta's predictable reaction : "I lost two good friends of mine... and although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now."
It sounds really awesome in theory, but what's it worth? Brennan? Mendoza? No. I did what I did because in the scheme of painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brush stroke. That's not above and beyond. I didn't take the biggest brush stroke, and it wasn't the most important brush stroke. Hearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face. I don't think you know what I did. I didn't do shit.
Giunta is an unassuming man. He described his motivation for joining the army: "At the time I joined the Army I was working at Subway. I didn't really have a whole lot going on." As it does for many, the military offered a possibility for him to progress in life.
When I was working at Subway, I was working nights - and the commercial came on about the recruiters in the mall handing out T-shirts. Oh, I'm a sucker for a free T-shirt. I'm still a sucker for a free T-shirt. I'd keep that quiet around some people-offer me a free T-shirt, I might do something crazy.
From the ridiculous to the . . . sublime? Giunta was 18 when he signed on to the military. By age 19, he had left Iowa for Afghanistan, and began witnessing his friends die before his eyes.
How would you have handled seeing your friends die at age 19? Giunta is now 25, and thus his adulthood has been marked by constant killing and death. He departed the States with little life experience. Giunta didn't really understand what he had signed up for - he knew nothing about Afghanistan before being sent there:
I signed up for four years when I came into the army. I didn't think that I was going to go again, but Stop-Loss. I didn't really understand Stop-Loss, until Stop-Loss. We were in the Korengal (the most dangerous, forsaken, stressful area in Afghanistan), but I couldn't leave the Korengal as a result of the Stop-Loss, yes.
Soldier heroes often describe the sense that they have been unfairly selected as heroes - Giunta repeats every time he is interviewed the quite natural response (this is a paraphrase).: "I'm not a hero - the men I was with gave everything they had for our country. I'm far from the bravest guy I knew out there. I reacted strictly by instinct."
You do everything you can (to survive). You don't think. You just react. Everyone knows. (You just find yourself being shot at.) All your attention is where all the flashes are. It looks like a bunch of little dragons spitting fire, and then there's just a whole bunch of rounds coming in. There's no time to be scared. In hindsight, it's scarier than it was then.
How does a person react after something like that? "That's what makes talking about it so difficult. Talking about it I can rehash and I can think about every second of it and everything in my mind and I can really dwell on it when, at the time, there's no time to dwell on it."
Giunta describes the specific incident - rescuing Brennan - that gained him the medal:
by the time my magazine was already empty, I was at Brennan... I yelled for Sergeant Gallardo that, God, they're fucking taking him.
Take your time. It's O.K.
Yeah, it's a lot harder looking back on it than it was when it was happening.
Like you said, going over it at a distance is tough.
I don't really plan on answering this question too many times. I don't have to. I got a great book written by Sebastian Junger called War (about American soldiers fighting and dying in the Korengal Valley). You want to read about it, read about it. You don't want to hear me talk about it. I don't want to talk about it.
But we need Giunta to talk about it - you could understand the President's gratitude and relief as he gazed at and hugged the medal winner, saying, "I really like this guy." While many people may hate the President, here he is next to someone everybody loves.
Meanwhile, the President also couldn't help thinking: "This man almost died fighting in Afghanistan, where he went as a teenager, because of our sketchy policy, which even I'm not sure is working. And he isn't even complaining!" Obama said that GIunta was "as humble as he is heroic." That's one way to put it.
Giunta will have psychological problems. He already does. You can see the haunted look in his eyes. Medals don't touch the feelings he has. As for the President, how would you feel hearing details about men dying due to decisions you make - decisions that you hear criticized as irrational and leading nowhere, and which you question daily yourself?
Maybe he also will have - has - psychological problems.
Quotes from Giunta are in Tim Hetherington, "The Honor of His Company," Vanity Fair, December 2010.