“If they’re not leaving by helicopter, they’re in trouble.”
— Excerpt of an intercept from an unidentified Taliban commander
communication somewhere near Landigal village, Korengal Valley,
Kunar Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 25, 2007
The moon was so bright on the night of Oct. 25, 2007, that then-Specialist Salvatore “Sal” Giunta of Hiawatha, Iowa, and the other soldiers of First Platoon, Battle Company, Second Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne, didn’t have to use their night vision goggles as they prepared to leave their position. They had spent much of the day in an overwatch position on the Gatigal spur, part of a ridge overlooking Landigal village in the Korengal River Valley, as Second Platoon searched the village for weapons. By nine p.m., Second Platoon had finished and left Landigal. It was time for First Platoon to rendezvous with Second Platoon at the bottom of the ridge.
The Korengal Valley is part of Kunar province in northeast Afghanistan and roughly in the middle of the forbidding Hindu Kush Mountains. In 2007 it was a major center of Taliban activity. Throughout the day, the First Platoon soldiers had heard radio chatter amongst various Taliban insurgents, the gist consisting of attack threats against them. Though not so foolish as to dismiss such threats, the Americans were not alarmed. If anything, as they prepared to file down the steep switchback trail, lined on both sides by stands of holly trees and mounds of shale scree, their mood was one of confidence. At the trail’s base, friendlies waited. Above, flying shotgun, were Predator drones, Apache helicopter gunships, and other air assets. And they had their own weapons, ranging from M4s to an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun. Certainly they had enough overall firepower to give anyone foolish enough to attack them a very bloody nose if not outright annihilate them.
While alert for the possible danger of attack, the men were particularly focused on the ankle-wrenching threat posed by trekking down a rugged trail in the Hindu Kush under a moonlit night. Walking its rock-strewn trails even in daytime could be treacherous. Centuries ago the mountain range was known as the Pariyaatra Parvat. Muslim invaders arrived in the Hindu-populated region in 642 a.d. It took them almost 700 years, but by the early 14th century Muslim conquest of the Hindus was complete, and the Pariyaatra Parvat had a new name, one inspired by the genocide of the locals meted by the invaders: Hindu Kush – Hindu Killer.
Unknown to Giunta and the rest of the squad of eight soldiers leading the platoon, a small group of Taliban insurgents were preparing to add their lives to the mountain range’s long history of violent death. The squad, led by Sgt. Josh Brennan, had walked into a trap – a classic L-shaped ambush. Most of the soldiers were already in the line of fire of about ten insurgents armed with belt-fed machine guns, RPGs – rocket propelled grenades – and AK-47s, hiding in ambush positions parallel to the trail. As soon as the squad reached the blocking position manned by three insurgents armed with AK-47s, the air in front and on the left side of the unsuspecting Americans erupted in gun and RPG fire. The insurgents had thrown up a “wall of lead” designed to isolate the squad so it could be quickly captured or killed.
Looking down, the Apache pilots could only watch with helpless horror as the ambush unfolded. The Taliban had set up their ambush perfectly. They were at the most just twenty feet away from the Americans. The pilots didn’t dare fire – the combatants were too close to each other.
Brennan fell to the ground, wounded eight times. Giunta, the fourth in line, received two rounds, one in his front armor plate, another in his assault pack. Despite intense enemy fire, Giunta ran back to drag Specialist Erick Gallardo, who had been shot in the helmet, to cover. Recovering, Gallardo joined Giunta and they began bounding forward into the teeth of the ambush, firing and throwing grenades. On reaching the wounded Specialist Franklin Eckrode, Gallardo stopped to render aid. Giunta then sprinted forward to rescue Brennan. Giunta arrived as two Taliban were dragging the sergeant away. He managed to kill one of the insurgents with his M4 carbine and drive away the other. Giunta proceeded to give first aid until a medic could arrive.
Eventually the rest of the First Platoon linked up with the squad. Once their position was consolidated, the Apaches and a Spectre gunship moved in and took revenge.
For his actions “above and beyond the call of duty” that night, on Sept. 10, 2007, the White House announced that Salvatore Giunta, now a staff sergeant, would receive the Medal of Honor, making him the first living recipient since the Vietnam War.