U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta stood with quiet grace, remarkable stillness and downcast eyes as the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, was draped around his neck by President Obama last week. Giunta became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, joining the rarefied ranks of the nation’s other 86 living recipients.
The 22-year-old Army specialist was in his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he summoned extraordinary courage by repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to rescue a wounded fellow soldier during a Taliban ambush. Giunta then realized another comrade was missing, and, acting on his own out of sight of his unit, ran into heavy artillery fire to rescue a severely wounded soldier in the hands of two Taliban captors. Giunta’s fellow soldiers nominated this brave young man for his courage and selfless actions to rescue his brothers in war.
Yet Giunta has told reporters that he accepted the award on behalf of all troops who have served in this seemingly never-ending war the nation often seems to forget. He did not, he insisted, deserve the honor for himself. “I’m not at peace with this at all. I’m average,” he said. “I don’t think that I did anything that anyone else I was with wouldn’t have done.”
The simple decency, humility, and selfless actions of this young man named Salvatore Giunta stand in stark contrast to the callousness and self-seeking aggrandizement of most of the country’s would-be political leaders. We’ve just finished elections with candidates who campaigned as if the war no longer mattered, or even existed. The nation’s nine-year war in Afghanistan barely rated a mention in the noisy mid-term elections.
Asked by a New York Times reporter about what role the war played in his campaign shortly before the election, one U.S. Senate candidate sheepishly responded: “Wow, I didn’t think of that. That’s definitely a factor of how not on the public radar it is. It’s gone on so long people are tired of it.” The Times article quotes the candidate by name, but it’s not necessary, really, since the vast majority of candidates conducted their campaigns in the same forgetful manner.
While candidates played a silly season game of one-upmanship by attempting to outdo each other with how many times the words “liberty” and “freedom” could be crammed into a 15-minute stump speech, those men and women defending liberty and freedom in the longest war in U.S. history were virtually ignored. Voters weren’t interested, politicians determined, so why bring it up if there are no votes to be won?
Instead, why not question whether the separation of church and state are constitutional? Why not simply slap questionable labels on everyone and everything and pretend you’ve actually communicated something of substance? Why bother to talk about war and its cost in human treasure, as well as to the nation’s treasury, when bumper sticker slogans and meaningless platitudes are guaranteed to garner easy applause?
Here’s why — Salvatore Giunta and the 100,000 other soldiers stationed in the treacherous mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, still fighting a war against an enemy that belongs to no state and is constantly on the move. More than 1,300 Americans have lost their lives on Afghanistan soil. More than $350 billion has been spent on the Afghanistan war so far, with even more billions spent in Iraq. But, using the language of today’s political spin, the Afghanistan war and the daily acts of heroism performed within its borders didn’t fit the preferred campaign narrative, nor offer enough political traction to even discuss.
Salvatore Giunta served his country quietly and courageously. He did not seek attention or celebrity status. He did not use a public office for personal financial gain. He did not seek power or acclaim by selling himself to a network reality show. He did not even use his award to attempt to remind us of the horrors of war.
While our political leaders wrap themselves in self-proclaimed cloaks of patriotic fervor, Salvatore Giunta earned his. His quiet grace puts our political leaders to shame.