February 24, 2011
America’s newest Medal of Honor recipient is overwhelmed by the attention that comes with the award.
“There’s a lot more heroes than me,” Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said after he spoke to hundreds of Air Force Academy cadets on Thursday.
Giunta and two other recipients of the nation’s highest medal for valor — both Air Force veterans of Vietnam — told cadets that being a hero is more about training and opportunity than any other quality.
“You do it day in and day out,” explained retired Col. Leo Thorsness, a pilot who was given the medal for heroism in a 1967 air battle. “Then you just happen to do something that people think is extraordinary.”
“What causes people to do the right thing is the amount of training they have combined with the kind of people they aspire to become,” said retired Col. Bud Day.
Day was awarded the medal for escaping his Vietnamese captors after being shot down and injured 1967. He was caught again by the Vietnamese after two weeks on the run but continued to offer stiff-necked resistance despite suffering gunshot wounds when he was recaptured.
The Air Force Academy brought the three in for the school’s National Character and Leadership Symposium. It was a rare gathering — just 85 people who have earned the Medal of Honor are living and Giunta is the first living recipient of the medal since Vietnam.
Cadets asked them about the burden of being held up as a hero, and what kind of leaders inspires valor and gallantry in troops.
Giunta, who was given the medal for repeatedly risking enemy fire on a 2007 mission to rescue wounded comrades in Afghanistan, told the cadets that valor in combat is more about who you’re with than any hidden character trait.
“The biggest duty is to each other, the ones sitting next to you,” he said.
Thorsness said almost everyone has the makings of heroism tucked away inside.
“I flew 92 and a half missions very successfully,” Thorsness said, with the half referencing the last mission he flew in Vietnam before being shot down and imprisoned in Hanoi for the duration of the war. “I saw one airplane and one guy who didn’t have it. Fear overcame his common sense. But that’s one guy out of 500 or 1,000.”
“My squadron never had an airplane abort,” Day said. “Much of that had to do with training and much of it had to do with the warrior spirit. If you’re a warrior, you go kill people.”
While they downplay their heroism, the three admit the medal each had hung around his neck at the White House weighs more than they thought it would.
“It’s almost embarrassing to be singled out for doing your job,” Day said. “We are just the representatives of all those guys who went out there and did the right thing. It’s humbling.”
Giunta said everyone wants to pat him on the back or buy him a round at the bar. But all he can think about are those who didn’t survive the mission that earned him the medal.
“It hurts me to know that there are two men who have given everything they had to their country and they will never see this level of support.”
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