First Living Iraq War Medal of Honor Recipient Fought Through Hell on His Birthday

The invocation of certain places or names for American veterans can conjure up a flood of mixed emotions and astonishment over one's own survival through the carnage of combat. For the veterans of the Iraq War, Falluja is one of those places with bad memories.

Painful recollections center on two distinct battles in 2004. The second battle, in November, is infamous for being the bloodiest of the entire Iraq War (2003-2011) and the most intense urban combat U.S. forces had been involved in since Hue City in Vietnam in 1968. The battle, known to veterans as Operation Phantom Fury, is where 82 American service members died and over 600 were wounded. Iraqi forces serving alongside U.S. forces suffered six dead and 55 wounded.

For former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant David G. Bellavia, the memories of Falluja can seem as if they occurred fifty years ago or just yesterday.

"Not thinking about Fallujah is possible, and quite effective as a means to move on. Sometimes regular life automatically triggers you back to that time in your life, wrote Bellavia in his book, House to House: A Soldier's Memoir. "I often wonder how much war has affected us all."

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Bellavia received the Medal of Honor from President Donald Trump for his actions 15 years ago on November 10, 2004—which also happened to be Bellavia's birthday.

He is the first living Iraq War recipient of the nation's highest honor for combat valor.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the number of America's post-9/11 Medal of Honor recipients.

Medal of Honor recipients statista
The number of America's post-9/11 Medal of Honor recipients. Statista

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In the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, previous Medal of Honor recipients, lawmakers, acting cabinet officials and current and former service members—some who fought alongside Bellavia—watched as President Trump hung the medal from his neck.

"David's father, William, passed away in 2017, and though he is no longer with us, we know that today, he must be one of those proud dads looking down upon us from heaven and his very proud of his son, and his son's family," said Trump in his opening speech.

Jump back six months to this past December. Bellavia was expecting a call, which had been canceled four times prior, from a senior Pentagon official. Bellavia had no idea, however, if the news would be good or bad.

"Your call is coming in five minutes. You good to take it?" a U.S. Army colonel asks. Eventually a familiar voice came on the line: President Trump.

"I am sitting here with the vice president and some other people and we are going to bestow upon you the Congressional Medal of Honor for your great bravery," wrote Bellavia, recalling the phone call with the commander-in-chief.

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia and Staff Sgt. Colin Fitts, outside the Industrial District in Fallujah Iraq, during Operation Al-Fajr, November 2004. Photo courtesy of David Bellavia/U.S. Army

Ask any Medal of Honor recipient about receiving America's highest award for combat valor and the answer most often is a gray one. While the medal is a revered honor, it's also a reminder of what's often the recipient's worst day.

The smells, sights and sounds of Iraq came trudging back. Falluja, known as 'The City of a Hundred Mosques,' located in Al Anbar Province, west of Baghdad on the Euphrates River, had become a stronghold for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and the most dangerous city in Iraq by early 2004 after the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In the early morning hours of November 10, 2004, the men of Third Platoon, Alpha Company of the U.S. Army's Second Battalion, Second Infantry Regiment were ordered to clear a street block of 12 buildings where six or more militants had taken shelter. Bellavia was a squad leader in the platoon.

Michael Ware, a war correspondent for TIME magazine was embedded with Bellavia's unit and wrote that the previous day soldiers had been "running from firefight to firefight for 48 hours straight with no sleep, fueled only by the modest pickings from their ration packs."

The platoon cleared nine buildings without encountering the enemy, according to the U.S. Army. But at the next compound, the men, who had entered a front hallway, were ambushed in a savage fusillade as two enemy combatants opened fire with machine guns under a stairwell.

Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, enter and clear a building during heavy fighting, Nov. 9, 2004, in the Askari District of North Eastern Fallujah. Photo courtesy of David Bellavia/U.S. Army

Moments later, bullets rained down from a window, the rounds hit the walls and floorboards in the small corridor and forced the soldiers to take refuge in a bedroom.

With the volley of gunfire from two different positions, the soldiers were trapped. Two of the men were bleeding from the face from bullets shattering the window glass—another was grazed by a round whizzing past his stomach, per the U.S. Army's description.

Bellavia exchanged weapons with one of his soldiers, who was carrying a M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) and entered the doorway of the room where his soldiers were taking cover. As bullets snapped past, Bellavia opened fire with his machine gun, allowing the soldiers to move out of the house and into the street.

Undeterred by thoughts that life could end at any moment, Bellavia reentered the building with his fellow soldiers and Ware from TIME magazine and faced down four enemy combatants carrying machine guns, AK-47s, and one preparing to load a rocket-propelled grenade, in room-to-room gun battles inside a three-story building.

After the fight, an exhausted Bellavia walked out onto a second story balcony to smoke a cigarette when a fifth insurgent jumped from the third story roof, landing three feet from Bellavia, per the U.S. Army.

The militant dropped his weapon, giving Bellavia enough time to seriously wound the insurgent with his M16.

"When the wounded insurgent attempted to raise his weapon again, Bellavia fired the rest of his magazine into him, causing the insurgent to fall off the roof into the garden below," according to the U.S. Army.

Bellavia was born on November 10, 1975, in Buffalo, New York, growing up in western New York and graduating from Lyndonville Central High School and Houghton Academy. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1999.

After leaving the military in 2005, he co-founded Vets for Freedom, a veteran advocacy organization aimed at separating the foreign policy that begins armed conflict from the soldiers who fight in those wars.

"The narrative of the Iraq war has long been written. It was the bad war. The war of choice. The war based on failed intelligence. We forgot the lessons of Vietnam. We put the policy of why we went to war over the valor of a generation battling in it," wrote Bellavia in his book. "It is insulting and cruel that more participants have not been acknowledged for what we all accomplished under fire."

Bellavia returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter in 2006 and 2008, covering firefights in both Ramadi and Falluja, according to the U.S. Army.

He currently resides in western New York and has three children.

3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, “The Mighty Third Herd,” moments before H-hour, Nov. 8, 2004. Photo courtesy of David Bellavia/U.S. Army

This article was updated with comments from President Donald Trump during the Medal of Honor ceremony for former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant David G. Bellavia. An infographic was also added.

First Living Iraq War Medal of Honor Recipient Fought Through Hell on His Birthday | U.S.