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Person of the Year

Available from: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/person-of-the-year/

Mark Zuckerberg is a name I grew quite familiar with even through my year in Kandahar. Facebook was the novelty through which I interacted with most of the world back home. Though it was accessible only on our trips to the forward operating base — no connectivity on our stranded outpost in the Zhari District. Despite all that Facebook meant to me while at war, I was less than thrilled to find that Mr. Zuckerberg had been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The distinguished title goes to the man or woman deemed to have had the most influence through the year’s events. Other notable names on the short list included Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, The Tea Party, and the Chilean Miners.

As I read through this year’s selection summary, my eyes scanned for even the mention of one name. A name that has grown to mean so much to so many Americans, but unfortunately too few to be considered “influential”. That man was Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in the Global War on Terror, and the youngest living recipient by 35 years (he is 25 years old, there are three living recipients who are currently 60 years old).

I stared at Zuckerberg’s bright pale face on the cover of Time; his skin almost as white as the pages upon which the article was written. I contrasted it with the deep tan covering my soldiers’ faces along contours not covered by eye-protection and chin-straps.

I am not upset that Staff Sgt. Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not “influential” enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.

Tears — genuine tears — filled my eyes when I heard Staff Sgt. Giunta’s Medal of Honor Citation I felt fear and empathy, I felt pride. I had never met this man, I didn’t know who he was. But he made me want to be a better soldier and leader of soldiers. When I saw Giunta’s interviews on The Colbert Report, Sixty Minutes, and dozens of other broadcasts, my heartbeat raged with pride knowing that he and I shared the same uniform. He was humble, and he wore that blue ribbon around his neck for all of us. Every single man or woman in uniform I’ve spoken to has felt the exact same way.

Giunta may not have 500 million Facebook friends. But allow me to paint a picture of his “influence” in a profession of such fierce influence as the U.S. Military. We soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are tired. It’s not only because we spend one year out of every two or three at war. It’s returning to full work just a few weeks after coming home. It’s training and re-training, and remembering. It means never really getting a chance to sufficiently recover from one’s psychological and emotional wounds. It’s knowing that, if we want to stay in uniform, we will inevitably return to war again, and again.

In a military nearing complete exhaustion, Staff Sgt. Giunta gave many of us a second wind. He softened the hearts of the world’s most powerful, yet over extended, fighting force, and inspired us to continue rendering salutes and follow orders into fierce battles … all in the name of a controversial conception of security. If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is.

Today, there are 87 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. In about 30 years, Staff Sgt. Giunta could very well be the only one left. He is not just a hero, he is the hero of a whole generation of twenty year old kids — my soldiers — who go under-appreciated each day of their lives. The purpose of this essay is not to ask you to blindly regard service members as influential. The purpose is to make you evaluate the forces which influence you. Are they tweets and tags? Or bravery and dedication? What are the values which move you on a daily basis, and what are the values you want passed on to the next generation of Americans?

I hope that in my life, I’ll get the opportunity to meet Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta. I want to thank him for lifting my spirits after what I selfishly regard as a difficult year in Kandahar when I know so many others have had it much worse than me. I’d tell him thanks for bearing that medal on my soldiers’ behalf. Of course, if I never get that handshake, I suppose I can always show my appreciation by “liking” or posting” his Facebook Fan page. For that, Mark, I thank you.

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