WASHINGTON – Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who rushed into enemy fire and pulled three wounded soldiers to safety in Afghanistan in 2007, on Tuesday became the first living soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in a conflict since the Vietnam War.

At a White House ceremony, President Obama noted that nearly 40 years had passed since a recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor in an ongoing conflict had received the award in person. Since the Vietnam War, nine people have been awarded the medal posthumously for their service.

“I really like this guy,” Obama said in an off-script remark that drew applause. “When you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about.”

“This is an incredible time, but it’s also kind of a bittersweet time,” Giunta said after the ceremony. “Although this is so positive, I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now.”

On Oct. 25, 2007, Giunta’s platoon was ambushed by Taliban insurgents in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Two soldiers were immediately injured.

When a third was struck, “Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind what little cover there was,” Obama said. During the rescue he was hit by two bullets.

Giunta and others on his team mounted a counterattack, eventually reaching one of the two injured soldiers. Giunta continued pressing ahead in search of the other, Sgt. Joshua C. Brennan, one of Giunta’s best friends.

“He crested a hill alone, with no cover but the dust kicked up by the storm of bullets still biting into the ground,” Obama said.

Giunta found two insurgents attempting to carry Brennan away. He opened fire on them, killing one and wounding the other.

“For nearly half an hour, Sal worked to stop the bleeding and help his friend breathe,” Obama said.

Brennan was one of two soldiers who died that day. Obama told Giunta that his “courage prevented the capture of an American soldier and brought that soldier back to his family.”

“You may believe that you don’t deserve this honor,” Obama told Giunta, “but it was your fellow soldiers who recommended you for it.”

Giunta, 25, of Hiawatha, Iowa, also has received the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart, among other awards. He is a member of Company B, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, stationed in Vicenza, Italy.