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Person of the Year

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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.

10 responses

  1. Stewart Brough

    Rajiv, you have an amazing way with words.

    I have struggled with the growing schism between the military and the civilian populace. I used to get frustrated that they don’t understand us, but how can they?

    They never will unless they’ve been there.

    17 December 10 at 18:45

  2. Clay

    Perfectly articulated and an overall excellent article, as always. Hats off!

    17 December 10 at 18:46

  3. Jim Richards

    Time magazine is a dying font of liberalism. It is simply irrelevant anymore. So who cares about pasty faced Zuckerberg anyway? The libs who detest soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines because they know they are not fit to wash their socks. I’m with Sal and Rajiv and all of our comrades in arms.

    17 December 10 at 19:20

  4. Bob Patterson

    Jim – as a graduate of VMI and a veteran of the the Vietnam period, I sympathize with your point of view. However, history is replete with examples of conservatives who choose war, often without respect to the truth of the matter. I encourage you to read the debates held in Athens prior to the invasion of Sicily and compare/contrast them with the rhetoric that was used after the so-called Tonkin Gulf incident in the early 1960’s and the “mushroom cloud” talk almost 10 years ago before we invaded Iraq. Much of what I see in working with wounded vets today relates back to the distrust of those who send other men’s sons/daughters into harms way; yet these same “conservatives” do not ask the 99% of the population in the US who are not directly effected by OEG/OIF to sacrifice anything. I consider myself a moderate who would rather we spend the wars’ $80 billion/month here at home to reduce our dependance on the same countries who are financing the radicals whom we fight.

    17 December 10 at 21:07

  5. Shweta

    The questions you ask of people to consider here are totally spot on Rajiv, and I also think that they hold the answer too, to your disappointment or concern maybe….
    How many people truly make an effort to seek out heroism, courage or valor and recognize it? And if they do, which medium do they look at… Military might not be it, for the general populace and neither might Time magazine.
    For many, military is this entity that is present amidst them, but something that is also invisible/intangible, remote…
    As a civilian, it’s hard to recognize valor and heroism/courage in an environment (a.k.a the military) that is so removed from their daily life …… wrapping one’s head around the military life demands committment & investment (of time/energy/emotions), which a civilian (irrespective of their political affiliation) might be loathe/unable to make, unless there is a personal stake (which is mostly emotional).
    How many people actively take an interest in the military & its workings and its life out of sheer curiosity or as a matter of national pride? Or as a place to seek for personal values?

    And while I agree on what you say about the military and Mark Zuckerberg (I find his selection personally unjustified, but then I don’t live on FB), I also think that many other heroes & role models worthy of being recognized (outside of the military) don’t get recognized by the media…. So, in my eyes, Time magazine’s view, just like any other media is an opinion, period, of a few… I take it with a grain of salt.
    – From the soap box of one who is a civilian, with an emotionally vested interest in the military (She suggests you take her blurb with a grain of salt, not offense)

    18 December 10 at 06:22

  6. If each one of us could vote one person as our person of the year; we would find that there would be a variety of kinds of people chosen. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, an aunt or an uncle….perhaps our gramps or grandmama. But, our soldiers remain at the top of my list.
    They deserve our respect and gratitude and they deserve much more than a pat on the back when they come home.
    They deserve time to regroup and to heal. They deserve understanding beyond what we know how to give sometimes. Perhaps a silent hug will help; but we know it isn’t enough. So please accept our simple thank you’s and forgive us when we aren’t supportive enough. We do care and we love our soldiers greatly. We know that your road was hard; much harder than we can imagine. We pray that our prayers reach you and embrace you in the way that we can’t and that they bring you home safely and soon. We pray that inward healing touches you quickly and that you feel whole once again. Each soldier is worth more than his or her weight in gold. Each is our national treasure. Have a blessed Christmas and a new start this New Year. Be blessed Rajiv!

    18 December 10 at 16:44

  7. Zuckerberg and Facebook are influential but only superficially so. 30 years from now, when it is possible (and likely, based on Congress’ unwillingness to award the MOH to any living recipient other than Staff Sgt. Giunta at this point in time) that Staff Sgt. Giunta is the only living MOH recipient left, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg will only be a footnote of trends and technology.

    But the inspiration, the motivation, and the influence that Sal Giunta has had, and will continue to have, upon our servicemen and women will carry forward at a level that is impossible to fathom. It will be woven into the fabric of our national character, in the hearts of those that stand ready to defend our way of life.

    You may not see it on the cover of Time Magazine but it’s there. I promise you, it’s there.

    20 December 10 at 10:37

  8. BK Price

    Rajiv, very well written post. And I concur, SSG Giunta is a far more admirable hero; one who should be looked to as a guiding light with regards to living one’s life with courage, compassion, and concern for others. Thank you for highlighting him.

    A couple of points though of a purely editorial nature: 1) It is not the “Congressional” Medal of Honor. Although that title is commonly used, it is simply “the Medal of Honor.” (It is presented by the President in the name of Congress, which probably causes the confusion.) 2) This was probably just a typ-o but SSG Giunta is not the first GWOT recipient of the MoH, he is simply the first *living* recipient. SFC Paul R. Smith was awarded (posthumously) the MoH for his actions on 4 APR 03.

    Lastly, with regards to Time magazine, keep in mind that Adolf Hitler was “Man of the Year” in 1938 with Jospeh Stalin following in 1939. “Influence” is not necessarily intended to convey “positive” contributions to the world. Just the fact that they influenced the world in general. So, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over SSG Giunta not being grouped together with Hitler, Stalin, former President Clinton, or Ted Turner.

    However, in all fairness, it must be pointed out that “the American Soldier” was Time’s “Persons of the Year” in 2003 (which was their second showing, previously in 1950).

    Keep up the good writing!

    21 December 10 at 14:04

  9. Bruce

    Loved the article Rajiv. Just to point out there were a few others that received the Medal of Honor for OEF and OIF. They were just awarded posthumously.

    I’d like to meet the man myself.


    22 December 10 at 06:13

  10. Meredith

    Beautiful post! Thinking of you and looking forward to giving you a ring over the holidays (the phone type that is =).

    25 December 10 at 15:57

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