In the middle of a pitched battle in Iraq came a request for help: Members of Staff Sgt. David Bellavia's platoon of soldiers were pinned down in a dark house under intense close-range machine-gun fire.
Bellavia stepped into a doorway under fire and squeezed the trigger of his belt-fed M249 automatic weapon until it ran dry of ammunition. The Americans, including Bellavia, retreated from the room successfully. But that was just the beginning of Bellavia's valor on Nov. 10, 2004, according to Army accounts of the battle and those of veterans who served with him.
On Tuesday at the White House, Bellavia, 43, will become the first living U.S. veteran or service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in the nearly nine-year Iraq War that began with the 2003 U.S. invasion. Bellavia is credited with not only braving enemy fire to free his battle buddies from a kill zone but also reentering the house in Fallujah to fight and kill other insurgents, including one in hand-to-hand combat with a knife.
"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," said retired 1st Sgt. Colin Fitts, one of the soldiers pinned down in the house. "Were it not for David Bellavia, I wouldn't be sitting here today."
Bellavia, who previously received the Silver Star for his actions, was fighting in Operation Phantom Fury, in which more than 10,000 U.S. troops took back what had once been a city of more than 350,000 people from about 4,000 deeply entrenched insurgents. The intense urban clash, commonly known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, included scores of gun battles in house-to-house fighting.
Bellavia is among a group of service members whose valor awards have been upgraded after a review launched by former defense secretary Ash Carter in 2016 of valor awards from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Army Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins posthumously received the Medal of Honor following the same review for smothering a grenade in Iraq in 2007 to save the lives of fellow soldiers. More than 100 awards have been upgraded.
In the latter half of the battle, Bellavia reentered the house in Fallujah after a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle pounded it with 25 mm cannon fire, with other soldiers covering him. The building was filling with noxious water after the plumbing was destroyed by gunfire from the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, but insurgents inside were still alive.
Bellavia pursued them, he said, because they had a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that could have killed numerous U.S. troops.
At one point, an insurgent burst out of a wardrobe, and Bellavia shot him multiple times, according to an Army account of the battle. When the enemy fighter began running away, Bellavia followed his blood trail upstairs to the second floor, slipping in the blood. He threw a grenade into the room where he was hiding. The two men then grappled in hand-to-hand combat, with Bellavia killing the insurgent with a knife, according to Bellavia's Silver Star citation.
"I walked into situations that were happening in real time, and I just had to react to it," Bellavia said. "And that's exactly what I did."
Col. Douglas Walter, Bellavia's former company commander, said he nominated Bellavia for the Medal of Honor early in 2005. Walter knew that senior military officials would closely scrutinize his recommendation, and "initially we weren't sure what happened to it."
Bellavia said President Trump notified him late last year that he had been approved for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
"I always felt that there was the opportunity to have it reevaluated and looked at, and obviously, apparently that did happen," Walter said. "So regardless of the process, we're sitting here today and we're honoring a great soldier and a great American for some pretty incredible things."
Bellavia's actions took place on his 29th birthday in the midst of a hellacious deployment for his unit, the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. Thirty-seven people from the brigade died that year on deployment, including Capt. Sean Sims, Bellavia's company commander.
"These were not random splashes of misfortune," he said. "These were men who saw the enemy, made contact with the enemy and gave their lives for this country."
Bellavia has been a talk-show host in Buffalo, New York, and ran for Congress in that state as a Republican. But he indicated Monday that he is now interested in serving the Army in some capacity to help recruit a new generation of soldiers.
"Look, there is a million and five reasons why we are divided in this country," he said. "I never cared what your skin color was, who you worshiped or who you loved. If you are willing to get shot at for me and my buddies, I will follow you, and I will lead you anywhere."