On Wednesday President Trump awarded former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia with the Medal of Honor, making him the first living recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor for actions during the Iraq War. This week, Bellavia and his fellow soldiers recounted the events of November 10, 2004, when the 29-year-old sergeant fought with gun, grenades, and knife in a dark house with sewage flooding the floor and broken mirrors glinting on the bullet-marked walls.
House clearing is an especially harrowing mission, amounting to a potential knife fight in the dark that largely negates the U.S. military’s advantage in long-range weapons and standoff fires. Though exhausted by three days of nearly non-stop operations, “Alpha 2-2” — Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, of the famed 1st Infantry Division — was a crack unit, with a reputation for discipline and doggedness. Team members had already seen combat in the battles for Najaf, Mosul, Baqubah and Mugdadiyah.
The nearly 300,000 citizens of Fallujah had largely abandoned the city to some 3,000 hardcore jihadists and terrorists who had booby-trapped and fortified many of its buildings, connecting them with underground tunnels for clandestine reinforcement or retreat as the situation demanded. Many of the lurking insurgents had stockpiles, not only of weapons, but of amphetamines and other drugs to make them heedless of death and resistant to pain.
Fighting hand-to-hand in the houses was exactly what the enemy wanted the Americans to do. “Alpha 2-2” had developed a counter tactic. An M1 Abrams tank would fire a high-explosive 120 mm round into the front door, followed by a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clearing rooms with windows on the street with its powerful 25mm chain gun. Only then would infantry squad “dismounts” enter and clear the building.
But by the time that 1st Lt. Joaquin Meno and his third platoon arrived at the 10th house on the block, the order had come down that the M1 could not fire in the direction of these buildings because of the danger to friendly forces operating in area. Then the Bradley’s chain-gun jammed. Staff Sergeant Colin Fitts – a legendary soldier in the unit who had been shot three separate times earlier in the deployment yet refused to abandon the fight – nevertheless led his men into the foul-smelling darkness.
In a well-practiced series of covering moves as intricate as a drill team, the squad moved quickly through a narrow foyer and into a larger living room. A doorway on the other side led down a hallway towards a stairwell. The lead soldier turned to enter the hallway and a sound prompted his sergeant to pull him aside by his battle webbing as the room exploded with the impacts of high-velocity rounds from two belt-fed machine guns positioned behind a blast wall beneath the staircase.
The deafening sound of the machine guns filled the tight confines, bullets tearing through plaster walls and ricocheting throughout the house. Shards of glass and bits of plaster filled the close air and peppered soldiers’ faces. Strobe lights mounted on weapons careened around the room and bounced crazily off the ceiling as everyone dove for cover and hugged the walls. Carefully rehearsed tactics flew out the window with that first volley, and in the pandemonium that ensued the entire squad realized it was pinned down and trapped.
“We’re all gonna die!” one of the U.S. soldiers shouted.
On any given day a U.S. infantry unit in combat will witness multiple acts of conspicuous gallantry that would confound most observers. Combat forged iron bonds of devotion among soldiers who must repeatedly risk their lives to protect each other. So the outcome of a given firefight can depend on who the charged electricity of combat ignites first, short-circuiting the survival instinct that would normally shut a man down before he rushes a machine-gun. On November 10, 2004, that man was Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.
Exchanging his bullet-damaged M-16 rifle for an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon in the chaos, Bellavia exposed himself to the enemy’s “fatal funnel” of fire, spraying automatic fire at the enemy position and suppressing the machine-gun bunker long enough for his team to escape the house. When the SAW ran out of ammunition, Bellavia retreated from the house at a run as bullets zinged all around.
“The sounds inside that house were deafening and awful, and rounds were flying everywhere. That’s when Sergeant Bellavia grabbed a SAW and stepped forward to lay down covering fire to suppress the enemy until we could get out of the building,” retired Sergeant First Class Fitts told me in an interview. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it weren’t for David Bellavia.”
But the battle that would make Bellavia the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the war in Iraq had only just begun.
Crouching beneath a low wall on the outside of the insurgent house and trying to get his breath, Sergeant Bellavia made a mental head count to make sure everyone had made it out alive. The situation on the darkened street was chaotic. He could tell from the radio that his Alpha Company Commander, Captain Sean Sims, was engaged in an intense fight elsewhere in the city that was taking priority in terms of air and fire support. Meanwhile his team was taking insurgent fire from the surrounding rooftops and dispersing to try and neutralize that threat.
Bellavia’s adrenaline was still pumping from the fear and excitement of the firefight. He was angry that the insurgents inside that house had tried to kill his closest friends.. He remembered RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) he had seen inside of the house that still represented a serious threat. Most of all, though, Bellavia, felt a profound sense of letdown. He had closed face-to-face with the enemy, recognized the confidence and determination in their expressions, and he was forced to break contact and retreat.
Bellavia had grown up in the small town of Lyndonville, New York, the son of a successful dentist and the youngest of four boys. He remembered listening as a boy to the vivid stories of his grandfather Joseph Brunacini, who served in World War II during the Normandy campaign and earned a Bronze Star for valor. In 1999 Bellavia enlisted in the Army himself. Two years later came 9/11 and his opportunity to prove his courage.
So, as he crouched behind that wall and gathered his thoughts, Bellavia made a decision that would astound his fellow soldiers. First he established a cordon of fire on the outside of the house with his SAW gunners to block any insurgent retreat, and then he instructed a newly arrived Bradley Fighting Vehicle with a working weapon to fire its 25mm cannon into the windows of the house. With just Staff Sergeant Scot Lawson as backup, Bellavia was going back inside the insurgent redoubt to confront the enemy head on.
The house was pitch black and ominously quiet when Sergeant Bellavia reentered through the front doorway, and it looked somehow different. The Bradley’s high-explosive rounds had redecorated dramatically.
With only Lawson covering his back, Sergeant Bellavia noticed details that had escaped him in the crowded chaos of their initial entry. He was sloshing through nearly ankle deep water from burst water pipes, the slime clinging to his boots and the overwhelming smell of sewage and garbage assaulting his senses. There were bits of broken mirrors on many of the walls and floors, reflecting rooms at eerie angles. With almost no illumination to work with, the night vision goggles created a “cat’s eye” effect of extreme tunnel vision.
From the corner of his eye Bellavia saw movement in a mirror’s reflection, and then the face of an insurgent in the next room staring back. Without even aiming, he thrust his 40mm grenade launcher around the corner of a doorway and fired into the room, the round shooting out through the back of the house harmlessly. The insurgent was loading up an RPG but confined by the furniture, so Bellavia advanced, aimed his rifle and puts rounds on him until the man collapsed.
Bellavia listened and waited until he saw movement in the doorway as the second insurgent passed, then fired and hit the man — who somehow disappeared towards the kitchen.
By this point Sergeant Bellavia’s mind was playing tricks on him. He doesn’t know if he just shot the original insurgent who ran into the kitchen or some new enemy who was in hiding. It wasn’t like the movies where you shoot a bad guy and they fall and that’s the end of it. In this house of nightmares, they dropped and seemed to disappear.
In the tense silence, Bellavia could hear footsteps throughout the three-story house. Some of them were coming from behind him, where Sgt. Lawson was supposed to be on guard. Bellavia swung his rifle around to meet this new threat and was startled to see Time Magazine reporter Michael Ware. Bellavia had worked with many embedded reporters before and generally had no time for them, but he had never met a reporter who was willing to put himself in the middle of a house fight. His estimation of Ware shot way up.
As he advanced into the house, a round whizzed through the room, and Bellavia swung towards the staircase where another insurgent was coming down the stairs firing an AK-47. Taking cover behind the wall, Bellavia noticed a gap of a few inches between the doorframe and the concrete wall. He aimed the rifle barrel through the gap and fired until the insurgent crumpled.
Just then a wardrobe in the room flew open and another insurgent came stumbling out as the wardrobe toppled to the floor nearly at Bellavia’s feet. The insurgent tried to make it to the door while firing blindly behind him with a snub-nosed AK-47, the bullets striking the wall and the wardrobe where Bellavia was taking cover. The insurgent stepped over a mattress and lost his footing, toppling into the water. Sergeant Bellavia wounded the insurgent, who somehow managed to scramble out the door and up the stairs.
Bellavia gave chase up the staircase but his boots were slick from the foul water: He stepped on a smeared trail of blood, and fell on his face. A round exploded on the wall where his head had just been. He managed to throw a fragmentation grenade into the room at the top of the stairs. When the reverberation and dust from the explosion subsided, he heard the wounded insurgent shouting something in Arabic to someone on the third floor.
Bellavia entered the room at the top of the stairs and faced the wounded insurgent. Bellavia put a choke-hold on the man to try and quiet him from giving away their position. Despite his injuries, the jihadist found the strength to bite into Sergeant Bellavia’s arm and then smack him in the face with the butt of his AK-47 rifle. In the desperate grapple, Bellavia grabbed his knife and slit the man’s throat.
Utterly spent, Bellavia set down his rifle and removed his helmet, then walked out on a second-story patio to smoke a cigarette. Killing the last insurgent in hand-to-hand combat had taken everything he had left. “I was just stressed out, and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to have this cigarette outside on this patio, and my guys are going to come in and we’re going to take out this last guy as a unit,” he recounted in an interview. “Because I just had too much.”
At that moment a fifth jihadist leaped down from the third floor and landed practically at Sergeant Bellavia’s feet. If the insurgent had kept his balance, he could have killed Bellavia, but as the insurgent fell and rolled on the floor Bellavia was able to grab his rifle and shoot him point blank. The wounded man tried to crawl to the rooftop but fell, toppling into the darkness.
As he stood in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday to receive the Medal of Honor, former Staff Sergeant David Bellavia called up onto the stage the many members of his unit present who served together in Iraq, along with the families of the soldiers the unit lost in the Battle of Fallujah: Sean Sims, Steven Faulkenberg, Scott Lawson, J.C. Matteson and Michael Carlson. All told, his brigade lost 37 soldiers during its year in Iraq.
Anticipating the moment earlier in the week, Bellavia admitted thinking about the fallen every day. “They gave up all their tomorrows for us, so I’m very proud to be part of the generation of Iraq War veterans,” he told reporters. “Seeing all these guys after 15 years – I just have so much love. I never thought I’d see love on a battlefield. That experience is ghastly and ghoulish. But you see people doing things for each other that they would never, ever do in any other circumstance. Let me tell you it is a sight to see, and it will change your life forever. And I think all of us are better for seeing that love displayed in combat.”