By Daniel Finney
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- The hair is a little longer and he's grown a goatee, but U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore "Sal" Giunta, now retired, still carries himself like a soldier.
He stands straight, weight balanced perfectly on both feet and without a hint of fidget in him. He addresses everyone as "sir" or "ma'am." And he looks people straight in the eye, locking his dark brown eyes in a clear, confident gaze.
The Medal of Honor recipient was back in Iowa talking to the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives at the group's annual conference in West Des Moines on Friday.
Giunta told the story about the night in October 2007 that earned him the military's highest honor, but he wanted the audience to know that this was not a story about a special man.
"I am as ordinary as they come," Giunta said. "I'm just a kid from Iowa. I tell this story because of the people I served with -- to honor them and to honor what we can become when we look beyond the individual."
The simplified version of Giunta's Medal of Honor story is this: He ran through heavy fire to stop Taliban insurgents from dragging away his mortally wounded buddy, Sgt. Joshua Brennan. Giunta killed one insurgent, and the other ran toward the mountains. Giunta dragged Brennan out of harm's way as he and his squad repelled the ambush.
But Giunta doesn't talk much about what he did that night. He seldom uses the pronoun "I."
Instead, he talks about his good friend Brennan and the talks the two had about war, death and their mission in Giunta's early days in Afghanistan as an 18-year-old kid who grew up in Cedar Rapids.
He talks about how squad leader Erick Gallardo tried to charge the ambushing insurgents and took an AK-47 round right off his helmet, but managed to get back to his men, with assistance from Giunta. "It must have felt like he got hit in the head with a baseball bat," Giunta said.
Giunta recalled his squad mate PFC Kaleb Casey standing without cover and firing his heavy automatic machine gun, capable of blasting out 100 rounds per second, to draw fire toward him and allow the others in the squad to move for cover and get better position on their enemy. "He looked like a dragon breathing fire in the night," Giunta told the crowd.
He talked about Spc. Hugo Mendoza, the outfit's medic. "I called for him three times in my career, and twice he appeared by my side like magic," Giunta said. "That night I called, he didn't come. I figured he was busy. He was one of the first killed in the attack."
Giunta told his part, too, how he rescued Brennan from an even more grisly fate at the hands of insurgents. But again he fell back to the "we" rather than the "I."
In the military, they teach you to forget about the individual," he said. "Your job is to look out for the man to your right and the man to your left. In exchange, two men will be looking out for you. That's how we're strong. That's how we're the best: together."
In a telephone conversation with his mother not long after the events of that night in 2007, Giunta vowed to never again tell that story. He asked that his family never ask him about it again. But upon receiving the Medal of Honor, he faced scores of interviews from the major news shows to David Letterman. Again and again, he told the story. He wanted it to be more than a war story and never something that appeared self-aggrandizing.
Giunta also wrote a book, "Living with Honor," which is due out Tuesday.
"I didn't want to write a book," he told The Des Moines Register in an interview. "But I had an opportunity to talk about all of us and all we did and take the focus off me."
Giunta has never been comfortable wearing his Medal of Honor, but he does not shrink from the responsibility. Instead, he takes every opportunity to encourage his fellow Americans to serve -- not just in the military, but everywhere.
"We are the greatest, strongest and fastest country in the world," he said. "But we can always be better."