David Bellavia receives the Medal of Honor for his actions in a ‘house of nightmares’
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 25, 2019
WASHINGTON — Pinned down inside a pitch-black, insurgent-filled house in the early days of the second battle of Fallujah, Staff Sgt. David Bellavia grabbed a heavy M249 automatic machine gun from another soldier and charged forward into oncoming fire from enemy fighters hunkered down in a stairwell.
The enemy fighters froze, ducking away from Bellavia’s fire just long enough for his squad to escape the building and regroup outside. Moments later, with his fellow soldiers outside, the infantryman from Buffalo, N.Y, burst back into the building — eventually killing four insurgents and gravely wounding another.
Nearly 15 years later, Bellavia stood stoically Tuesday as President Donald Trump placed the Medal of Honor around his neck for his actions that night — Nov. 10, 2004, his 29th birthday. The former infantryman who left the Army in 2005 never cracked a smile during the White House ceremony, sharing only telling nods with more than a dozen of the men with whom he served. Along with his family, the men joined him on the East Room stage and a packed audience roared and applauded.
Many of those men would not have made it to the White House on Tuesday if it were not for Bellavia and his “exceptional courage to protect his men and defend our nation,” against an enemy “that would have killed them all had it not been for David,” Trump said.
After the ceremony, Bellavia described the experience as “overwhelming.”
“I served with some of the greatest men I have ever met in my entire life” in Iraq, he told reporters at the White House. “I am proud to be an Iraq War veteran … This entire thing — I can’t even comprehend it.”
Bellavia is the first living American to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in the Iraq War. The honor is an upgrade of the Silver Star that Bellavia initially received for his actions that day. He is only the sixth servicemember to receive the nation’s highest military honor for actions in Iraq.
For Bellavia, that day of the brutal house-to-house battle that would stretch into December does not especially stick out in his mind. He has better recall of other skirmishes during the battle when his unit felt outnumbered, when there were so many enemy fighters that it was difficult to choose where to point his M-16 rifle. He recalls the days that he lost his fellow soldiers — Command Sgt. Maj. Steven Faulkenburg who died one day before his solo charge into the building and Capt. Sean Sims, 1st Lt. Edward Iwan and Sgt. James Matteson who were killed three days later.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Bellavia said Monday. “I never in a million years thought I would be talking about this day for the rest of my life.”
Soldiers who fought alongside him that day tell a different story. That fight is firmly entrenched in the minds of Maj. Joaquin Meno and retired Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts, who credit Bellavia’s actions with saving the lives of much of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company that day.
“Definitely heroic,” Meno, at the time a first lieutenant and 3rd Platoon’s leader, said of Bellavia. He added the soldier’s action that day live on “in the hearts of everyone” in the 1st Infantry Division who talk about them often.
“If it were not for David Bellavia, I would not be sitting here today,” Fitts said. “I am certain of that. I am extremely humbled and appreciative of him.”
Just days into the second battle to retake the key city of Fallujah back from al-Qaida militants, Bellavia’s unit was tasked with a pre-dawn mission to clear a block of 12 buildings, a task meant to support other soldiers fighting door-to-door nearby.
“It was a very dangerous operation,” Trump said, describing the events.
Bellavia anticipated a firefight. Intelligence showed at least six — if not more — enemy fighters were holed up in the buildings. They cleared the first nine structures without incident. But within moments of entering the 10th building, heavy machine gun fire let loose.
It was an ambush.
“Guys were inside trying to take cover,” Meno recalled. “Rounds were coming from inside, and from outside [a] window, breaking glass. It’s chaos. It’s almost pitch-black.”
One soldier was wounded when a round grazed his face. Two others suffered minor lacerations as glass shattered around them, according to Army documents.
Bellavia took it upon himself to act. He grabbed the M249, moved forward and squeezed the belt-fed, automatic weapon’s trigger until it would not fire anymore.
After he and the others exited, Bellavia re-entered the building without any other soldiers — tailed only by Michael Ware, an embedded journalist who followed the soldier into the “darkened nightmare of a house,” where he encountered insurgents loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, according to his award citation. Bellavia rushed forward, killing the insurgent and wounding another.
Bellavia moved into a second room, eventually killing the wounded insurgent before moving toward a stairway where another militant was firing at him. After taking out the third enemy fighter, Bellavia eventually moved up the stairs to the house’s second floor where a fourth fighter was killed with a hand grenade.
Upon learning that Bellavia had re-entered the structure, Fitts recalled thinking his friend had made a crazy decision.
“I did not know he was going to do that. If I had known he was going to do that, I would have asked him not to,” the retired soldier said. “Which is why he is such a hero. Because nobody should be in that position or put themselves in that position, and that’s what sets him apart.”
In the weeks after Bellavia’s actions, Meno and then-Capt. Douglas Walter, their company commander, huddled to begin gathering evidence to submit Bellavia for the Medal of Honor.
“This was different than anything I had seen,” Walter, now a colonel, said of his decision to submit his soldier for the nation’s highest military honor. “It stood out. The more I went through it, the more I was convinced that he had saved the lives of a squad.”
Walter said he was not sure why the award was eventually downgraded to a Silver Star, but he felt “a little bit of vindication” when he learned in December of the upgrade, a product of a Pentagon review ordered in 2016 of all high-level, post-9/11 valor awards.
“It’s a little overwhelming, a little surreal,” the colonel said. “We worked hard on it, and I thought he was deserving.”
Helping the Army
For Bellavia, the recognition and the publicity that surrounds the Medal of Honor mean his life is about to change.
Being singled out, he said, is “awkward.” Bellavia chooses to focus on the friends he lost fighting in Iraq and the families those men left behind.
For him, the awards also means a career change, which will include an assignment back with the Army “for however long they will take me.”
The 43-year-old father of three has spent recent years as a conservative talk radio host in his native Buffalo. A Republican, he has sought office, running unsuccessfully in 2012 for New York’s 27th Congressional District. Local reports indicate he was considered a likely candidate for the same seat in 2020.
But, for now, Bellavia said Monday, those ambitions and his talk radio show will be set aside as he uses his new recognition to benefit the Army with a focus on reaching out to young Americans to convince them being a soldier is a good option that gave him “purpose and direction.”
“I’m forever grateful to the United States Army,” he said. “I want to be of service to my Army. I want to bring as many young men and women to join the military as possible.”
Instead of politics, Bellavia wants to focus on bringing people together.
“When you look at a dog tag, there’s basic information that you put on there, and political party isn’t part of it,” he said. “All throughout our history, we have had people that have dissented, that have disagreed, and we’ve found ways to put everything aside and focus on what’s best for this nation, what’s best for mission success.”
For now, he said Tuesday, he is grateful for the Medal of Honor because it has allowed him to reconnect with some of the men he served with 15 years earlier, and with the families whose servicemembers never made it home from that long deployment in Iraq.
“I never thought I would see love on a battlefield," Bellavia said. “It’s horrible, it’s ghastly, and it’s ghoulish. But you see people doing these things for each other that they would never, ever do in any other circumstance — it’s a sight to see.”