November 11th, 2010
07:32 AM ET

The battle that created America's newest hero

Editor's note: President Obama will present Sal Giunta with the Medal of Honor award on Tuesday. Watch live on CNN TV and online.

COMBAT OUTPOST DURANI, Afghanistan — Their memories of the firefight are still searing, three years after it took place.

"The whole time frame lasted, I don't know, maybe two minutes, three minutes. Five or six lifetimes," U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta told CNN. "You can turn and see the muzzle flashes and the bullets coming out of the guns and it's not just one of them, not just 10 of them, it's more than that."

It was an October night in the part of eastern Afghanistan called the Korengal Valley, not far from the Pakistani border. Soldiers describe it as unlike other parts of Afghanistan where dust and bare rocks are everywhere. The Korengal is timber country, green interlaced with boulders. A treacherous terrain for U.S. paratroopers.

"Everything is hard," Sal Giunta told CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. "The rocks are hard. The people are hard. The vegetation is hard. Everything is sharp."

Giunta and his platoon were hiking back their base after days of intermittent attacks by the Taliban. Giunta and the others were on top of a small ridge. At the front, or walking "point" as the military says, was one of Giunta's best friends, Sgt. Josh Brennan of McFarland, Wisconsin.

Suddenly, gunfire and rockets were erupting from both in front of them and alongside. It was what military experts describe as an "L-shaped" ambush, designed to kill or capture everyone.

"It cut off our squad from the rest of the platoon, " Sgt. Franklin Eckrode told CNN. "It cut our team off the rest of our squad."

Hit eight times was Brennan. He had fallen on the ridge line. Eckrode was hit four times.

Giunta, fourth in line with the squad, was hit twice, once in his body armor and a second time as a bullet kicked off a weapon he had slung on his back.

But Giunta kept firing, first reaching Eckrode and then bounding to the spot where Brennan had been hit. Two Taliban fighters had started to drag Brennan away.

Eckrode tells CNN what happened next.

Giunta "killed one of the guys who was dragging my team leader away, Sgt. Brennan. Wounded another one. Recovered Sgt. Brenna. Brought him back to an area where we could secure him and continue the fight. Started the aid on him," Eckrode said. "For all intents and purposes, with the amount of fire that what was going on in the conflict at the time, he shouldn't be alive."

Every member of that platoon was struck by enemy fire that night. The medic, Spc. Hugo Mendoza of El Paso, Texas, was killed. Giunta's heroics meant that Brennan would not be captured and that he would be tended by medics and evacuated by helicopter. He died the next day.

"This is where it gets rough for me," Giunta told CNN. "Every time I can try to explain it and and I can try to put it into terms that people can understand it, and the more I do that - talking about it doesn't help me. And it weighs heavy on me to this day."

Within hours, his squad mates and his commanders knew Giunta had done something exceptional. An act above and beyond the call of duty, which is the principle standard for receipt of the Medal of Honor.

At his home in Wisconsin, Josh Brennan's father, Mike, is surrounded by photographs and medal citations honoring his son.

"Sal Giunta is, in my mind and my belief, a hero for what he did that day." he told CNN. "He is very modest and does not want to really take any recognition for what he did because he said he was only doing his job. He allowed us to have our son back because had he not done what he did, we don't know what would have happened if the Taliban would have dragged Josh up and we would never have gotten him back. So I am very grateful for everything that he did."

Along with Sal Giunta and his parents Rosemary and Steve, Mike Brennan says he expects to be at the White House for the Medal of Honor ceremony on Tuesday, November 16. To thank him in person.

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