Retired Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia will become the first living Iraq War veteran to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the White House announced Monday in an action that many consider to be righting a wrong from a war that became unpopular with liberals.
President Trump will award the medal to Sgt. Bellavia, 43, at a White House ceremony June 25 for “conspicuous gallantry” during some of the deadliest fighting in the second Battle of Fallujah in 2004. He killed five insurgents in a house and saved the lives of his squad.
“Never in my life had I seen anything like that,” Sgt. Bellavia said later of the fighting.
Sgt. Bellavia will be the sixth soldier to receive the nation’s highest military honor for combat in Iraq. All five previous medals were awarded posthumously.
President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, awarded four Medals of Honor from that war. President Trump has awarded one, but President Obama didn’t award any to Iraq service members, living or dead, during his eight years in office.
Even Mr. Trump has taken issue with the Iraq War while paying tribute in office to the bravery of those who served. Last year, he called Mr. Bush’s decision to start a war in the Middle East “the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country.”
“Obama may have gotten [U.S. soldiers] out wrong [from Iraq], but going in is, to me, the biggest single mistake made in the history of our country,” he told The Hill.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a Marine veteran, criticized the Bush and Obama administrations for failing to adequately recognize combat bravery with the Medal of Honor. In 2015, he wrote to Mr. Obama about “inconsistent criteria” for awarding the medal.
Obama Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in 2010 that fewer medals were being awarded because modern warfare often is waged at a distance and “there’s less hand-to-hand or in-close combat than there has been in previous wars.”
That clearly wasn’t the case with Sgt. Bellavia, a squad leader who exposed himself to enemy fire as he defended his soldiers on Nov. 10, 2004 — his 29th birthday.
His squad was with Marines facing up to 3,000 insurgents in Fallujah, and 3rd Platoon, A Company members unsuccessfully searched nine buildings before encountering heavy gunfire from a 10th house.
The White House said Sgt. Bellavia used his M249 squad automatic weapon to suppress and counter the insurgent attack, allowing other trapped U.S. service members to escape the house. When the platoon began taking fire from insurgents on the rooftop, Sgt. Bellavia called for an M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle to provide suppressing fire and he reentered the house.
He fought his way up three floors as insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at him. He killed one insurgent and wounded another, who then ran to another part of the house.
“Then-Staff Sergeant Bellavia was soon engaged by another insurgent rushing down the stairs when the previously wounded insurgent re-emerged to engage him as well,” the White House said. He returned fire, killing both attackers.
He then took enemy fire from an insurgent who appeared from a closet across the room. Sgt. Bellavia pursued him up the stairs and killed him.
“Soon thereafter, he moved to the roof where he engaged and wounded a fifth insurgent, who fell from the roof of the building,” the White House said. He killed one of the insurgents with his knife in hand-to-hand fighting.
“That remarkable day, then-Staff Sergeant Bellavia rescued an entire squad, cleared an insurgent strongpoint, and saved many members of his platoon from imminent threat,” the White House said.
Sgt. Bellavia, now a radio host in Buffalo, New York, was previously awarded the Silver Star and will have that honor upgraded. On his radio program, he called the announcement by the White House “humbling.”
“I’m going to just think about the guys we’ve lost the most. … Their families are going to be there to represent their sons and, you know, we’re hoping that the president recognizes just everyone that did so much,” he said.
“Iraq veterans have not had a living recipient, and this is the first one. … The narrative has been written on the Iraq War, but there are a lot of men and women who did outstanding work and did it because it needed to be done, and we didn’t vote to go to the war, but we fought and we’re very proud of our fight.”
Radio colleague Troy Bouhammer called the honor long overdue.
“It took 15 years and a forced review of all medals of valor for Dave to finally be recognized for his actions, and he will be the only living recipient of this medal for the War in Iraq,” Mr. Bouhammer said on his website. “Let that sink in for a moment … a war that saw hundreds of thousands of war fighters deployed from 2003 until technically 2011 (even though we still have soldiers there), and he will be the only living person from all of those years to have this medal hung around his neck.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said Sgt. Bellavia “exhibited remarkable courage” in Fallujah.
“His actions serve as an inspiration to all Americans,” Mr. Shanahan tweeted. “This month, he will deservedly become the first living Medal of Honor recipient of the Iraq War. He serves as a symbol of the bravery and selflessness of his generation of war veterans.”
A native of Waterport, New York, Sgt. Bellavia enlisted in the Army in July 1999 and was deployed in Kosovo. After his service in Iraq, he left active duty in 2005 and co-founded Vets for Freedom, a conservative political advocacy organization.
In 2007, he wrote a book titled “House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.” He also ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2012.
He will become the 3,469th American to receive the Medal of Honor.
The standards for receiving the award state that a service member must have “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”