Today is a proud day for our country. At the White House, President Obama is scheduled to award Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta his Medal of Honor, the first time the nation’s highest military award has been bestowed on a living soldier since Vietnam.
Giunta, as many have learned recently, risked his life to prevent Taliban fighters from abducting the body of Sgt. Joshua Brennan, one of his closest friends, after Brennan was killed in a firefight in October 2007 in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
Like many soldiers who have risked their lives to save others, Giunta has said that what he did was nothing extraordinary. He has called himself an “average” soldier, someone who was just doing a job that needed to be done. Which is as good a definition of gallantry as any: doing what needs to be done while facing death.
As Giunta described it to Elizabeth Rubin of the New York Times “I just kept on running up the trail” after the ambush. “It was cloudy. I was running and I saw dudes plural and I was like, ‘Who the hell is up here?’ I saw two of them trying to carry Brennan away and I started shooting at them. They dropped him and when I looked at him, he was still conscious. He was missing the bottom part of his jaw. He was breathing and moving and I pulled him back in the ditch…. I ran to the front because that is where he was. I didn’t try to be a hero and save everyone.”
Where are the citizen soldiers?
As President Obama awards Giunta the Medal of Honor on behalf of a thankful nation, it’s appropriate to recall Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent warning of a growing disconnect between the nation as a whole and the relatively few who fight its wars. As Gates said earlier this fall, “In the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”
That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution intended. While acknowledging the need for a professional army and empowering Congress to raise one, they preferred placing primary responsibility for national security in the hands of a militia. A standing army isolated from civilian life was a threat to liberty, as many emerging democracies have discovered. So the founders placed their faith in citizen-soldiers, who would serve alongside other members of their communities to defend the nation when attacked.
Here at the National Constitution Center, we’ve been attempting to close the gap that Secretary Gates feared was widening. We’re presenting a special exhibition on The Art of the American Soldier. It features artwork from the seldom-seen collection of the U.S. Army, which has commissioned soldier-artists to document the human face of war and the lived experience of military service from the time of the First World War to the present day.
Write a letter
At the end of the exhibition visitors have had the opportunity to reflect on what they have seen by writing postcards to soldiers deployed in current operations. The response has been overwhelming. To date, we have collected more than 6,000 postcards, which will be sent to the troops overseas through a partnership with the Letters for Lyrics initiative.
Many of the most moving messages come from children. Brian Cornell, a Philadelphia high school sophomore, who works as an intern at the Center, writes a postcard every week, with three or four jokes to cheer up its recipient. A recent sample:
When you’re feeling down, read this:
What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?
Why don’t aliens eat clowns?
(Because they taste funny)
Why was the Energizer Bunny arrested?
(He was charged with battery)
Most of the postcards are heartfelt expressions of gratitude:
I hope everything will work out for you and your friends there. I will be praying for you. From Tommy Corsaro”
Thank you so much for protecting our country. I can’t thank you enough. You mean the world to us.”
Thank you for all you’ve done for our country. How is it like being so far away from your home? It must take a lot of courage. Thank you.”
We will be thinking of you during the holidays. Thank you. Love, Eva”
Mike Simzak, a member of the Center’s interpretive staff, recalled receiving similar expressions of thanks when he was deployed in Iraq in 2003 -2004, in particular a box of letters from a girls’ field-hockey team. “All you hear about [on the news] is protests,” he said. “So it’s nice to know that there are people who appreciate what we’re doing.”
To submit your own letter to the troops visit the Letter for Lyrics website or stop by the National Constitution Center to see Art of the American Soldier.