Soldiers who risk their lives for their country are heroes. Sometimes, soldiers demonstrate incredible bravery through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of [their lives] above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
When this happens, soldiers may earn the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government.
All branches of the armed forces may receive the Medal of Honor. There are three versions of the medal: one for the Army, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
The actual medal awarded has changed over time. Today, the Army Medal of Honor is a gold star surrounded by a wreath under an eagle on a bar with the word “valor” inscribed on it. It hangs from a light blue silk neckband. The other versions of the medal are very similar to the Army version.
The word “valor” means heroic courage or bravery in the face of great danger. This word sums up the special requirements of the Medal of Honor. The award is presented by the president of the United States on behalf of Congress as the representatives of the American people.
Since the Civil War, 3,473 Medals of Honor have been awarded to 3,454 different people. Nineteen people have received two awards; 14 of these received two separate medals for two different actions, while five received both the Army and Navy awards for the same action.
The first Medal of Honor recipient was Jacob Parrott for his actions during the Civil War. The only female Medal of Honor recipient is Mary Edwards Walker, who was a Civil War surgeon.
Because the Medal of Honor requires exceptional bravery in life-threatening situations, it is often awarded posthumously (after death). Since the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to only one living person: Salvatore Giunta.
Sal Giunta, an Army staff sergeant, received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2010. On October 25, 2007, Giunta saved the lives of several members of his squad during an ambush near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Attacking insurgents were armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns. Giunta said, “[T]here were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky. A wall of bullets at every one at the same time with one crack and then a million other cracks afterwards. They’re above you, in front of you, behind you, below you. They’re hitting in the dirt early. They’re going over your head. Just all over the place. They were close — as close as I’ve ever seen.”
Giunta’s bravery in saving lives that day was incredible. However, he is modest when asked about his actions that day.
He claims he did nothing that his fellow soldiers wouldn’t have done for him. One of his fellow soldiers had this to say about Giunta: “For all intents and purposes, with the amount of fire that was going on in the conflict at the time, he shouldn’t be alive.”