Washington (CNN) -- A 25-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant from Iowa on Tuesday became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the war in Afghanistan.
President Obama awarded the nation's highest medal of valor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta -- the kind of soldier who leaves you "just absolutely convinced this is what America's all about," Obama said at the White House award ceremony. "It just makes you proud."
The president noted that Giunta is the only Medal of Honor winner who has served since the Vietnam era to have survived the actions that earned him the commendation.
Three previous recipients from the war in Afghanistan, four from the Iraq war and two from the Somalia campaign in 1993 all died in action, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.
Giunta was a specialist serving with the Airborne 503rd Infantry Regiment on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when his unit was attacked on the night of October 25, 2007.
According to Defense Department documents, Giunta and his fellow soldiers were walking back to base along the top of a mountain ridge when the enemy attacked from their front and their left. Taliban fighters barraged the Americans with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and Soviet-era large machine guns.
Giunta saw several of his fellow soldiers go down. He ran forward, throwing grenades and returning enemy fire, to help one soldier who had been shot but was still fighting, the documents say. Then he noticed one of the wounded soldiers was missing.
Searching for his wounded friend Sgt. Josh Brennan, Giunta ran over a hill where moments before Taliban fighters had been shooting at him. Now he was alone, out of sight of his fellow soldiers, in an area that the Taliban had controlled just moments before.
Giunta saw two Taliban fighters dragging Brennan away. He ran after them, killing one and wounding the other, who ran off.
Giunta instantly started providing first aid to Brennan, who had been shot at least six times, the documents say. Eventually a medic arrived and a helicopter was called in to take Brennan to a hospital, but he later died of his wounds.
Giunta's action, however, meant that Brennan was not at the mercy of the Taliban, and his parents would be able to give him a proper burial instead of wondering what became of him.
Giunta's quick response to the Taliban attack also helped his unit repulse the enemy fighters before they could cause more casualties, the Defense Department documents note.
Giunta was shot twice, with one round hitting his body armor and the second destroying a weapon slung over his back. He was not seriously hurt.
His actions "embodied the warrior ethos that says I will never leave a comrade," Obama said. "This medal is a testament to his uncommon valor, but also the parents and community that raised him."
According to the White House, the Medal of Honor is awarded to "a member of the Armed Forces who distinguishes themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty ... The meritorious conduct must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life."
Upon receiving the Medal of Honor, Giunta said he was appreciative but that the moment was "bittersweet." "I lost two dear friends of mine, Spc. Hugo Mendoza and Sgt. Joshua Brennan. And although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now."
The squadron's medic, Hugo Mendoza of El Paso, Texas, was caught with the rest of the group.
CNN's Larry Shaughnessy and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.