A US paratrooper who took part in some of the heaviest fighting in the war in Afghanistan – in the remote Korengal Valley – has become the first living nominee for the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam war.
The highest American decoration for military valour, the Medal of Honor has been awarded only eight times, all posthumously, since 1973. Two were given to snipers for the part they played in the battle of Mogadishu in 1993 in protecting a downed helicopter pilot. Since then, there have been six awarded from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but none of them has been given to a surviving serviceman.
Although the Pentagon has refused to comment on the identity of the soldier, the Army Times reported on Friday that it had established that the proposed recipient was Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His name is understood to have been put forward after he charged into a wall of fire from Taliban fighters, who were attempting to overrun his position, to drag away another US soldier.
The episode, which took place on 25 October 2007, is described in Sebastian Junger’s new book, War, which describes the fighting in the Korengal Valley. A documentary, Restrepo, made by Junger with cameraman Tim Hetherington and covering the same period, is released this weekend.
Describing his attempts to reach a wounded colleague, Giunta told Junger: “I did what I did because that’s what I was trained to do. I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy – I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn’t run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done.”
Read those last few words again. This guy is a true, real and live hero.
Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are light situations. They’re deadly serious. There are areas in both that are deadly. There are areas in which one can sit on a FOB for a year and never come under enemy fire. The media doesn’t run stories on this phenomenon. The enemy-less FOBs out there that see no real enemy combat. I’ve been on quite a few FOBs over there that see no enemy contact. I’ve been on some that see rocket and mortar attack. And I’ve been on some that have taken enemy fire.
I’ve never been anywhere close to the Korengal Valley or it’s daily hazard of enemy contact.
The guys in that valley acted heroically on a daily basis for weeks at a time. There are lulls, of course. Times when the taliban and the Arab fighters crawl back into Pakistan to lick their wounds and re-supply. Even so, the danger is ever present in a place like Korengal. There is no let down. The stress is unimaginable. The bond created by that stress. A bond forged in fire is indescribable. Seeing your friends killed or wounded and the unspeakable horror of the possibility or likelihood that you could be next. How does one speak to that.
I had conversations back in the States with some civilian friends of mine. Guys who had never been in a combat zone. They kept telling me that all of our soldiers were heroes. Some even characterized me as a hero. I’m simply a contractor over there. I can leave any time that I feel the pressure is too much. Hell, I could leave just for the hell of it. I was able to take holiday every 3 or 4 months.
Not so for soldiers. They’re there. For the duration. They’ll rotate in and out on leave once during their 12 to 15 month tour. Other than that, they’re stuck. No choice but to sweat it out.
But. There are two types of soldiers over there. Those who see combat and those who don’t. Some soldiers never leave their FOB. Never see an enemy combatant outside of CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. Some of these sit at FOBs that directly support combat troops. Some sit in rear areas like Bagram or Camp Phoenix and never leave the FOB. Others drive around green zones wherein no enemy contact is made.
I spent 18 months at Bagram Air Field (BAF). We were rocketed or mortared once a month at best. There was always a rumor that the insurgents would try to infiltrate. Bullshit rumors at best. Anyone with any knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan and of the insurgency knew that the insurgents had neither the equipment nor the manpower to breach BAF. It just wasn’t going to happen. Aside from the occasional rocket and the daily detonation of mines being detonated on the perimeter, I never felt truly threatened at BAF and the war rarely intruded on my day.
That’s how a great majority of soldiers and almost all of the Navy and Airmen spend their tour in Afghanistan. Contractors are, for the most part, in the same category.
Not so for your average Combat Soldier in Afghanistan. Not so for your average Marine in Afghanistan. These guys are sent out to do the heavy lifting. These guys fight. For those in Western Afghanistan, it’s a bit of a lighter load. Excepting parts of Farah and Badghis Provinces. I know this because I was there for 30 months as a mentor and trainer for the Afghan National Police. I know how much more dangerous some areas are than others in Afghanistan. I’ve spent time in Qandahar as well and up in the Mountains of Ghor. I’ve experienced some of these places and have spoken with folks just out of other areas. I know people in some of these places right now. Out in the East and the South, the fighting is much more intense. Korengal is in the East. Curved up next to Pakistan. I’m sure that during some of the Ops that those guys ran in Korengal, they looked straight down into Pakistan.
Those guys are fighters. Those guys are heroes.
I knew Officers and NCOs over there who never left the FOB. 12-15 months sending Soldiers and Marines out in harm’s way. Never once did they inspect these troops. Never once did they share their hardships and dangers. These Officers and NCOs were not heroes. They weren’t even leaders.
I know this is not politically correct of me to say, but, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who sit at FOBS and never see the enemy. They’re just Joes doing their job. There doing nothing heroic. Contractors out there are hired to do a job. They’re not heroes. There are exceptions to this, of course. Some men and women will fall into situations and become heroes. Others will fail and become cowards.
The men who fight on those hills. They’re guilty. Guilty of going above and beyond and becoming heroes. These are the men who in earlier times would have inspired tribal tales and cultural myths such as Hericles, Perseus and Achilles. These are the rough men standing ready to defend us. They join the military for adventure. They join the military for college funds. They join the military because if they didn’t, they’d probably spend their lives in prison. They join the military for as many reasons as there are individuals out there fighting. Regardless, they find themselves in hell. They fight for their brothers and die for their brothers.
Personally, I feel it’s a stain on the honor of the truly heroic to call all members of the military heroes. It’s even worse the way the term is bandied about as concerns Sports personalities and others of the like.
The title of hero is an honorific that’s earned. It’s an honor above all others. It’s about selflessness. It’s putting the lives of others above yours.
Despite their protestations. these men in the Korengal Valley and similar places are heroes.
We should not diminish their legacy by such easy use of the word.
If you want to delve more deeply into the War in Afghanistan or the Korengal Valley, I recommend reading WAR by Sebastion Junger. It is an amazing read.
It’s true that heroes are inspiring, but mustn’t they also do some rescuing if they are to be worthy of their name? Would Wonder Woman matter if she only sent commiserating telegrams to the distressed?
Author: Jeanette Winterson
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” Arthur Ashe