In a White House ceremony which wrapped up a few moments ago, President Obama awarded Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta the Medal of Honor. This is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a member of the Armed Forces. SSG Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in almost forty years. For lack of a better term, this is a very big deal.
I've seen dozens of interviews with SSG Giunta and each time I am struck by the modesty with which he talks about his exceptional heroism. But then again, it should come as no surprise as true heroes rarely think of themselves in those terms. Which is part of the reason they are what they are.
As tears welled up in my eyes while watching the ceremony, I couldn't help but think of what SSG Giunta's wife Jennifer, the woman he refers to as "his rock," must have been feeling as she watched her husband honored by a grateful nation.
Turns out, as with many military couples, they had an interesting courtship.
After he returned [from the first deployment] and she finished school, they knew they had to be together, so figuring she'd find a job, Jennifer left her family and friends and moved back to Italy. She never expected that Giunta would be stop-lossed and not only sent back to Afghanistan for 15 months, but sent to one of the most remote and dangerous areas of the country, the Korengal Valley, nicknamed the 'Valley of Death.'
They weren't married yet, so she didn't have access to the full benefits or support system that spouses enjoy, but Jennifer didn't want to go home to Iowa and be even farther from Giunta and the little news she could get. So she moved in with a friend who was an Army spouse, and they leaned on each other.
An Army spouse took an Army girlfriend in, and then later, the girlfriend became a spouse.
The deployment was so rough, that after their initial, giddy reunion, it took about six months for their relationship to get back to normal, Jennifer explained, addding that today their relationship is stronger because of everything they've gone through.
The world may call Giunta a hero, but he shies from the term, saying he was just trying to help a friend who would have done the same for him. He doesn't deserve any of these accolades. But Jennifer -- Jennifer is one of his heroes, and she has kept him grounded throughout the media whirl and the spotlight and the attention that he never wanted.
"My wife is awesome," he said. "I call her my equal -- but you know, she's smarter than me -- she's my rock... She's the person that I'll complain to... I can tell her and it doesn't come off as complaining and she'll understand and she'll help me through it... She's what keeps me on the level, because I can come in and meet different people and we can do whatever, but I need to have that 'this is my normal,' and when I go to her, she brings me down to this level and then we can talk. Regardless of what anyone says or how many lights are on us or how many cameras are pointed at us, she's what grounds me."
In fact, the spotlight is something that both prefer to avoid, and many of the spouses Jennifer knows on Vincenza came up to her after finding out about Giunta's award in the news, wanting to know why she never said anything.
"I'm very proud, but I'm not a very boastful person... I want them to like us for who we are and not this medal. So I would just like to continue to be the person I was. I haven't changed. I still talk to them in the same way," she said, adding that the bond between Army spouses has been a powerful force in her life. "We lean on each other. You want to always be supportive. I would hope that if anything happened to Sal, that I would have somebody there to help me. It can be a friend. It can be a complete stranger. You get that connection with people who have to go through the same thing as you (and) you almost don't have to say anything."
We witnessed a rare, historical event today. Today is a great day for America, for our Army family and certainly for the Giunta family.
An interesting side note about recipients of the Medal of Honor. Along with the award comes an enhanced benefit package.
- A Special Medal of Honor pension of $1,194 per month above and beyond any military pensions or other benefits for which they may be eligible.
- Spe cial entitlements to Space "A" air transportation.
- Enlisted recipients are enti tled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
- Commissary and exchange privileges (includes eli gi ble depen dents).
- Admission to the United States military academies for qualified children of recipients - with out nomination and quota requirements.
- 10 percent increase in retired pay.
- Medal of Honor Flag.
- Allowed to wear the uniform at any time as long as the standard restrictions are observed.
- Many states offer Medal of Honor automobile license plates.
- Interment at Arlington National Cemetery if not otherwise eligible.