President Barack Obama awarded the highest U.S. military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, to U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta on November 16, 2010. Since then, the Iowa native has traveled the country to honor the sacrifices of his comrades, to talk about the medal, and tell how one day in Afghanistan three years ago changed his life forever. Staff Sergeant Giunta says his Medal of Honor is an award shared by those not present to claim it, and those still serving at a time of war.
It is a star made of gold that lies below a blue ribbon of 13 stars. It symbolizes the greatest acts of heroism of the U.S. military.
Around the neck of Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, 25, it represents something else.
"I'm wearing this for all the unsung heroes that are so brave and aren't able to return, and aren't able to kiss their families who welcome them back," said Giunta. "I wear this for them, who I think are the bravest. I wear this for the families that have sacrificed, who have lost a loved one, who are left behind because of a deployment. I wear this for them - those are the true brave people."
President Obama awarded the medal to Giunta in a White House Ceremony in November.
His act of bravery occurred October 25th, 2007, while deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the volatile Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
Taliban insurgents ambushed Giunta's squad. One of his comrades, Sergeant Joshua Brennan, was severely injured and separated from the group. Taliban forces started to carry Brennan away. That's when Giunta spring into action.
"Sal never broke stride. He leapt forward, he took aim, he killed one of the insurgents, and wounded the other who ran off," said Obama.
Giunta recovered Brennan, but the injured man's wounds were severe. He died the next day.
"Civilians see those acts, which are sometimes extreme acts, they see it as courage. For soldiers, that's just what the job entails," noted author and filmaker Sebastian Junger.
Junger spent several months in 2007 producing the documentary Restrepo with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley.
The mission there ended in April, when U.S. forces withdrew. During their time in one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, 40 U.S. soldiers were killed, including two of Giunta's closest friends.
"Their understanding of what it means to be a soldier is that you do anything required to protect yourself and your brothers to complete the mission," explained Junger.
"We've been in Afghanistan since 2001, we've been in Iraq since 2003, we are a military of professional soldiers - all who have volunteered," added Giunta. "We didn't get drafted into this, these are people who knew what we were up against and still said they would go anyway."
Giunta's unit is currently ending its fourth deployment to Afghanistan since 2001. It may not be the last.
Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Korengal Valley, President Obama says his decision to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is working. Speaking to reporters about a recent policy review of his strategy, Mr. Obama said the United States is committed to staying the course in Afghanistan.
"We will never waver from our goal of disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al-Qaida," said Obama. "We will force enduring partnerships with people who are committed to progress and to peace, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure the security and the safety of the American people."
Three years have passed since Giunta's heroic action to save his comrades. Time hasn't made it any easier for him to talk about what happened.
"I hope it's never easy for me to tell that story, because if it's easy we are in a sad state in this world, if me telling one of the worst days of my life in Afghanistan when we were ambushed, losing two great friends of mine and seeing a whole bunch more wounded, if it's easy for me to tell? then it's a bad day," said Giunta.
Like many other soldiers, Staff Sergeant Giunta is near the end of his enlistment in the U.S. Army. He has not decided yet whether to stay in, or get out. Unlike other soldiers facing this decision, he is a member of an elite group of men. There are 87 living Medal of Honor recipients. But Giunta is the only living recipient from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.