In 2004, on the day he turned 29, then-Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia charged into a darkened house in Fallujah, Iraq and fired his weapon at lurking insurgents as the squad he led scrambled outside.
“Staff Sgt. Bellavia single-handedly saved an entire squad, risking his own life to allow his fellow soldiers to break contact and reorganize when trapped by overwhelming insurgent fire.”
So reads the U.S. Army official narrative of the battle that first earned Bellavia a Silver Star medal, the military’s third most distinguished decoration.
On Tuesday, at a White House ceremony, that distinction was upgraded to the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
Before draping the medal around Bellavia’s neck, President Trump praised him for defying almost certain death to free squad members trapped by enemy fire.
“Alone in the dark, David killed four insurgents and seriously wounded the fifth,” Trump declared, “saving his soldiers and facing down the enemies of civilization.”
The medal was a turn of events Bellavia says he had no role in bringing about.
“Fifteen years goes by and you move on with your life, you put the war behind you,” says the 43-year-old resident of western New York state. “You focus on your family, you focus on work, and, you know, my life was 100 percent perfect without a valor award of any type.”
“Honestly,” he adds, “I always considered my award just being able to come home.”
Bellavia’s company commander, Army Col. Doug Walter, says it was he who pushed since 2005 for the upgrade of Bellavia’s Silver Star.
“I’m not sure why or how or what the reasoning was that it was looked at again,” Walter says of the decision to boost Bellavia’s battle award to the Medal of Honor. “I’m glad that it was and I think it demonstrates, at least in this case, the system works.”
Bellavia’s award upgrade to the Medal of Honor is the fifth of its kind to be made under a three-year Pentagon review of valor awards involving post-9/11 conflicts. He is also the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the prestigious medal; five others who also fought there were awarded theirs posthumously.
The battle in which Bellavia’s actions won him the military’s top decoration was part of Operation Phantom Fury, popularly known as the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a second attempt by U.S., British and Iraqi forces to seize control of the city of 360,000 that was an insurgent stronghold.
Bellavia and his squad had been searching an abandoned block of houses for a half-dozen or more insurgents believed to be hiding out in the area.
The first nine houses they entered produced only stashed weapons. Inside the tenth house, they were met by a blast of machine gun fire from two insurgents hiding under the stairwell.
Bellavia’s troops were trapped inside the house and in mortal peril. He heard their screams as they were hit by bullets and shattered glass.
“A light switch went off,” Bellavia said. “I wanted that revenge. I wanted to be that leader that I promised I would be.”
Because his own gun had been disabled by an enemy bullet, Bellavia grabbed a heavier weapon – an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon gun, which he fired at the insurgents, giving cover to his troops as they escaped to the street.
“I just want to tell you that were it not for David Bellavia, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” says now-retired Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts. “We couldn’t get out. We couldn’t do anything. We were stuck there and I had to ask David to help me out, and he did that – he put himself in the line of that fire and laid down a base of fire, overwhelmed the enemy long enough for me to get myself and the members of my squad out.”
Bellavia too left the house. But when he noticed an insurgent inside with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, he went back in to prevent it from being used.
“To protect the platoon and members of his squad, David Bellavia had to go back in to a darkened nightmare of a house where he knew there was at least five or six jihadis waiting,” says Michael Ware, an Australian journalist who embedded with Bellavia’s squad in Fallujuah.
“I had the privilege to actually witness a Medal of Honor moment,” Ware adds. “To see a man perform such an act of valor that it was humbling to behold.”
Ware filmed that moment, which appears in Only the Dead, his acclaimed 2015 documentary about reporting from war-torn Iraq.
Bellavia says that episode changed his views on war journalists, whom he’d previously considered “100 percent a nuisance and without any purpose on the battlefield.”
“Without men and women who do this job, America will never know what we do. It will go unremarked,” he says. “Our families would never know, our citizens would never know the sacrifice that goes on. I never saw that as a soldier and as a civilian I see it.”
After six years in the Army, Bellavia retired in 2005. In 2007, he published a book about the Fallujah battle, titled House to House. Bellavia now has his own daily talk show on WBEN News Radio in Buffalo, N.Y., sharing its airwaves with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity.
Bellavia speaks with pride and a touch of defiance about having fought in what was possibly the bloodiest battle of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
“We have nothing to apologize for. We serve our country. We do what our leaders tell us to do,” he says. “The narrative on the Iraq War has long been written. I’m not here to change anyone’s mind. I’m here to tell you that there are men and women who have served their country in Iraq, and…it is one of the honors of my life to be a part of that.”