The American Legion Magazine | 3.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd
“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
—Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore “Sal” Giunta was not the only hero in his unit. As he puts it, “I was one person being brave in a group of a whole bunch of people that were being just as brave.” Army Sgt. Joshua Brennan was one of those people. Giunta earned the Medal of Honor in large part for his efforts to save Brennan, badly injured during a gun battle in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, from being taken captive by Taliban insurgents. A New York Times report gives us a glimpse of why Giunta risked everything for Brennan. “Brennan was always in the lead, without protest. Even after he’d been shot in the calf two months earlier when their patrol was ambushed. He’d do anything for his friends.”
Josh’s father, Michael Brennan, heard that same message during Sal’s Medal of Honor ceremony in late 2010. “Do you know why Josh always walked point?” Josh’s first sergeant rhetorically asked the Brennan family. “Because he was better than all of us. He was the best guy we had. He always walked point. He wanted to be out there leading his men.”
The elder Brennan, an Army veteran and Legionnaire, reflects on his son, Sal and the war that brought them together in an interview he gave just days after attending an emotional White House ceremony conferring the Congressional Medal of Honor on Josh’s friend.
The American Legion Magazine: How did your military service influence your son?
Michael Brennan: Josh’s mom and I were both in the Army, and since we both served in the Army, he wanted to follow in our footsteps. He was a sophomore in high school and came to me and said, ‘Dad, I really want to serve my country after I graduate.’ I supported him in that decision. And I was very proud that a young man of his age—16 at the time—would even be thinking about military service. Most boys that age are thinking about chasing girls, but he was thinking about serving his country. He wanted a challenge, and when he enlisted in 2003, he decided to go into airborne infantry. After Basic, I remember telling him, ‘You’ll definitely be challenged there, Josh.’
TALM: How often were you able to communicate with Josh during his two tours of duty in Afghanistan?
MB: Not very much. The first tour, we would communicate by email or phone every two or three weeks. But the last tour, when he was up in the Korengal Valley, it was maybe once every six weeks. They didn’t have phones or access to email. But right before he was killed, he called, and I wasn’t at home. But he left a message, saying, ‘Hey, Dad, it’s me, Josh. We’ve got phones up here now, and I’m going to be able to talk to you a lot more.’ I didn’t realize at the time what a gift that message was. We saved that.
TALM: Josh had been wounded during that second tour, before the gun battle that took his life. Had you heard about that?
MB: Yes. It was about a month before he was killed. I was contacted by the Defense Department. They called me at work, and they said he had been wounded. And all they could tell me was that he was in serious condition and he wasn’t out of the mountains. But then, that night, Josh calls me, in that real, nonchalant way, and says, ‘Hey, Dad. Did you hear I got shot in the leg today?’ I told him we were worried sick and asked how he was doing. He said, ‘It’s all good, Dad. It didn’t hit the bone, went right through the muscle…just a flesh wound. I’ll be back with the guys in a week.’ I told him to take it easy, because his unit needed him at 100 percent. We later found out that after the medic wrapped up that wound, Josh stayed in the fight for 12 hours. When the battle was over, they called in a Med-Evac helicopter to get him out, and he asked the captain, ‘Who’s the Med-Evac for?’ They told it was for him. He said, ‘I don’t need a Med-Evac. I’m going to walk down this mountain.’ And he did. He took the point position, and he led all the guys down to their base camp. He always chose to be that point guy.
TALM: That comes up in most of the remembrances of Josh, that he was always leading, always on point.
MB: Yes, as his first sergeant told us when we were out in D.C., ‘Do you know why Josh always walked point? Because he was better than all of us. He was the best guy we had. He always walked point. He wanted to walk point. He wanted to be out there leading his men.’ And that’s what he did. The day he was killed, he was filling in for another guy. He didn’t have to be there, and he didn’t have to be on point.
TALM: Josh told you that he felt like the troops in Afghanistan were being forgotten. What did he mean by that?
MB: Around the time he got shot in the leg, he told me, ‘In the last 30 days, we’ve been shot at every day except three. We get shot at as much as 10 times a day. And it seems like people don’t realize what’s going on over here. I just feel like people are going on with their lives, not knowing what we’re doing, not remembering our service over here. I feel like we’re totally forgotten over here.’
TALM: Sal’s Congressional Medal of Honor helps us remember the service and sacrifice of Josh, Sal and Spc. Hugo Mendoza, who died in the same battle that took Josh’s life. Could you share some of your thoughts on the White House ceremony where Sal, Josh and Hugo were honored?
MB: Mixed emotions, of course. We were very happy for Sal. We are grateful for everything Sal did for Josh. We can’t say enough about him and what he did to get Josh back for us. It was an emotional day. I never expected that President Obama was going to ask us to stand up, along with the Mendozas. It felt like people clapped forever. It was very touching. And after the ceremony, the president came out and shook our hands. When he came to shake my hand, he said, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ And I was getting choked up, and so he put his arm around me and gave me a big hug. That was tough. But then the First Lady came in and gave me a hug. She was crying. And as the president went down the line—our family, then the Mendozas—he came to Sara Mendoza. And she just lost it. She was sobbing so hard, and the president embraced her and tried to help her calm down. And then I noticed that behind the president and Mrs. Mendoza, Sal’s family was tearing up. It was just a very emotional day for us all. But to see Sal receive that medal, it was a long time coming. We actually talked about what Sal did during a visit to the White House in 2008, when we met President Bush and Adm. Mullen.
TALM: Could you share a little bit about Sal and how you came to know him over the last few years?
MB: The first time I spoke with Sal was about two days after Josh was killed. I received a phone call from Afghanistan, and it was from Sal and Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, Josh’s squad leader. And these two guys were just sobbing. I could barely understand their names. All they could say was, ‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry. We wish we could have done more for Josh.’ And I found myself, as a dad, trying to comfort these two guys. I told them, ‘It’s OK. I know you did everything you could. You did your best. I don’t want you to beat yourself up over this. Josh is in a better place. I want you guys to get through this.’ I needed to meet this man who did this for Josh. I needed to shake his hand. And I got that chance over in Italy, at the headquarters of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during a welcome-home ceremony. After that, Sal and I kept in touch by email. This past summer, we went down to Iowa for Sal’s wedding reception. And of course, we saw Sal and his family in D.C. for the Medal of Honor ceremonies. We stay in touch with him and his parents and his in-laws. As I told Sal, I couldn’t ask for a better man to be there with Josh at the end. He comes from such a good, solid family. He’s such a good guy. His wife is wonderful. Her parents are great people. We’re grateful for our connection with these people. We’ve formed this huge bond with these families and all these guys from the unit.