Nine of the 10 Medals of Honor from the Afghanistan war have been earned in the rugged hills and slot canyons of Nuristan and Kunar Provinces in the eastern part of the country bordering Pakistan.
On May 13 at the White House, former Army Sgt. Kyle Jerome White will become the latest recipient of the highest award for valor for his actions on Nov. 9, 2007, in Nuristan province while serving with Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Fifteen days earlier, a friend of White's from the 2nd Battalion had helped defeat an enemy ambush in neighboring Kunar province. Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta's selfless actions while serving with Battle Company of the 173rd on Oct. 25, 2007, were also honored with the Medal of Honor.
Giunta became the first living recipient of the Medal since the Vietnam War. Four previous awards of the Medal for heroism in Afghanistan were posthumous and all four were for actions in Kunar and Nuristan.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry received the MOH for his actions in southeastern Paktia province on May 26, 2008, while serving with the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Giunta, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, Army Capt. Will Swenson, Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy, and Special Forces Staff Sgt. Robert Miller were awarded the MOH for actions in Kunar.
White, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti, and Army Sgts. Clinton Romesha and Ty Carter received the MOH for their "above and beyond" service in Nuristan.
In an interview Wednesday, Giunta said he called White last month to compare notes on their experiences in the two provinces and to tell him of the responsibilities that come with the Medal.
White and Giunta were part of the counter-insurgency effort from now mostly-abandoned outposts in remote Kunar and Nuristan where the hostile locals have a long tradition of resistance to outsiders. Kunar was called the "cradle of jihad" by Russian troops during the Soviet occupation.
"Those people never wanted us there," Giunta said. "We came to give and assist but we did come with guns." The command decided in 2009 to pull back from the two provinces to concentrate on more populated areas and block access routes of the Taliban to Kabul.
"I wish them the best," Giunta said of the tribes who refused to cooperate or recognize the Afghan government.
Successive commanders of U.S. and NATO forces have wavered over the years on whether to pursue counter-insurgency in Kunar and Nuristan from hard to defend outposts, or focus on other areas less resistant to foreigners.
"Although counterinsurgency doctrine was successfully implemented in urban Iraq, it has proved more difficult to apply in the sparsely-populated mountains of Kunar and Nuristan," former Special Forces Maj. James Fussell wrote in a 2010 analysis of operations in the provinces.
The U.S. strategy was doing more to produce insurgents than defeat them, Fussell concluded in a paper for the Institute for the Study of War.
"U.S. forces are disproportionately committed to defending marginally significant areas in these remote provinces," said Fussell, who served two tours in Kunar and Nuristan. "The population is historically hostile to any outside influence."
In 2009, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, visited the area to oversee a withdrawal from the Korengal valley.
"There's never a perfect answer," McChrystal said of the shifting tactics in Kunar and Nuristan.
"I care deeply about everybody who has been hurt here, but I can't do anything about it. I can do something about people who might be hurt in the future," McChrystal said.
"The battle changes, the war changes," McChrystal said in remarks reported by the New York Times. "If you don't understand the dynamics, you have no chance of getting it right. We've been slower here than I would have liked."
In going into the two provinces, "the calculation was that you were going to have cooperation from Pakistan" in closing the border to the Taliban, said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Pakistani cooperation was not forthcoming and "now nobody seriously believes that in the near term we'll be able to go back into areas effectively abandoned by the U.S.," Cordesman said.
For White and Giunta, the bonds of combat forged in Nuristan and Kunar, and the special responsibility they now bear as recipients of the MOH, have inspired in them a commitment to speak out on behalf of all those who served.
"I'm truly average at best," Giunta said. Receiving the Medal only reinforced his belief that "I'm nobody without those around me."
He spoke of his mixed feelings as President Obama draped the Medal round his neck at the White House ceremony.
Giunta said he was torn by "the fact that I'm the only one standing on the stage and then to look down and see" in the audience the families of those he served with who did not come back.
"That changed me, I think," Giunta said, but the Medal also gave him a purpose. "This is my opportunity, this is my soapbox" to help vets with their transition to civilian life, Giunta said.
At a news conference last week, White said he also viewed receiving the Medal as an opportunity to serve.
The ambush after a meeting with tribal elders in the Nuristan village of Arenas was "the worst day of my life," said White, now an investment analyst in Charlotte, N.C. "It's something I think about multiple times a day," White said. "It's just something burned into your brain. You never forget."
White pointed to the bracelet he wears. It was a gift from a wounded soldier he rescued in the firefight, Spec. Kain Schilling.
"He had this made and he has the same one. We never take it off," White said. On it are the names of those who were killed in the battle: Army Capt. Matthew Ferrara, Sgt. Jeffery Mersman, Cpl. Lester Roque, Cpl. Sean Langevin, Spec. Joseph Lancour and Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks.
"I feel that this is an opportunity to get those names who gave their lives -- give them a chance for their names to be heard and their voices to be heard because I'm still here and they're not," White said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.
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