It was early 2005 when a company commander recently returned from an Iraq deployment put one of his squad leaders in for the military’s highest valor award.
“As awkward as this process is to be singled out, I just want to say how absolutely grateful I am that attention can be given to the men and women of [2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division], what we accomplished in that year,” Bellavia, 44, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.
Originally awarded the Silver Star, Bellavia is credited with almost single-handedly clearing a nest of insurgents in the dead of night during the second Battle of Fallujah, in November 2004. It would make him the sixth service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq, and the first to survive them.
“Essentially, to protect the platoon and members of his squad, David Bellavia had to go back into a darkened nightmare of a house.” said journalist Michael Ware, who had embedded with Bellavia’s unit as a Time Magazine correspondent.
The platoon had been clearing a block of houses the night of Nov. 10, coming under fire when they reached the tenth. From a barricaded position under the stairwell, the insurgents fired on them with belt-fed weapons.
The men fell back, calling in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to help out. But the combatants had rocket-propelled grenades inside, so Bellavia decided to not wait.
“We knew those guys were in there,” Ware said of the five or six insurgents holed up inside. “We’d been tracking them all night."
He killed five combatants in all, slitting the throat of one after going hand-to-hand.
“On paper, it seemed like a really good idea,” he said. “Just had to react to the situation.”
Col. Douglas Walter, then a captain, thought those actions made Bellavia a great candidate for the Medal of Honor.
That deployment saw “many acts of bravery and valor, but obviously, this was a little bit something different,” he said.
But the powers that be decided to award Bellavia a Silver Star, the third-highest valor award, instead.
“Initially, we weren’t really sure what happened,” Walter said. “I always felt there was the opportunity to have it re-looked at and reevaluated.”
That reevaluation came with a Defense Department-wide review of Global War on Terror valor awards, launched in 2016. Just over 100 awards saw upgrades, including more than a dozen Distinguished Service Crosses this year.
“I have no idea,” Bellavia said, when asked whether he ever learned about the reasoning behind his original award. "And a Silver Star is an incredible honor in and of itself. Honestly, I’ve always considered my award being able to come home.
A new life
Now, Bellavia’s Medal of Honor comes with a new role, as an ambassador for the Army and the armed services.
“The narrative on the Iraq War has long been written,” he said. “I’m not here to change anyone’s mind. It is one of the honors of my life to be part of that.”
For one, he will have to shut down his Buffalo, New York-based morning radio talk show, and perhaps set aside his political ambitions for the time being. Bellavia has twice entered the Republican primary to represent his western New York district in Congress.
He was discussing another run as recently as a few weeks ago, The Buffalo News reported June 16.
“I’m a party guy, I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican. But now I’m a soldier, a veteran, and infantryman,” he told the newspaper. “There’s no place on a dog tag for a political party at all."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.