Story by Robert Timmons on 09/06/2019Former Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, the only living Iraqi War Medal of Honor recipient, toured Fort Jackson Aug. 28 with Gen. Paul E. Funk II, head of the Training and Doctrine Command. His purpose on the installation was to visit and talk to the nation's future fighting force, but also got the opportunity to reunite with a few unit members he served with the night he earned his award.
Col. Douglas Walter, Fort Jackson's deputy commanding officer, has a history with Bellavia. He once was his company commander and wrote the necessary paperwork for Bellavia to receive the nation's highest honor.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Walter said. "We had a great unit with a lot of brave men. He's humble but this was a valor sack on his part. It was well earned and well deserved.
Walter and Bellavia were once members of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division stationed in Vilseck, Germany. There, Walter was the commander for Company A and Bellavia was a platoon sergeant.
As infantrymen, the company could often be found hidden somewhere in the training areas used for field training exercises or conducting peace keeping missions in Kosovo. While the threat of war in the Middle East loomed, the company never suspected the future events that waited for them, especially Bellavia and Walter.
"That was hell," Bellavia said. "I would rather spend five years and have an apartment in Fallujah than be in Kosovo. There's nothing to do."
The company completed the rotation in Kosovo and had returned to Germany when they got the word they were next in the shoot for the dessert deployment. Illness would take Walter out of the fight for a short time and was replaced as company commander by Capt. Sean Sims, a close friend.
The company deployed in Feb. 2003 to the Diyala Province of Iraq and combined forces with the Marines to take back Fallujah from insurgents. Insurgents had overrun the city and were well imbedded in the maze of city streets and tall buildings. The city was the perfect strong hold for the enemy and the fighting throughout the country was most intense in Fallujah.
"No one thought we were going to get Iraq," Bellavia said. "No one thought we were going to get any action."
Bellavia's company did get Iraq and did see action, they had taken casualties and wounded alongside their Marine counterparts. On the night of Nov. 10, 2003, they didn't. Bellavia's platoon was assigned a block of buildings to search and clear. They had received word that a small number of insurgents were in the area and their job was to find them.
After clearing nine buildings without incident or weapon cache finds, they moved to the 10th. As soon as they entered, they began taking enemy fire from both the front and back. The platoon was pinned and sustaining gun shot and shrapnel wounds.
"Fallujah was a close quarter battle." Bellavia said. "We just got caught where the whole platoon was in one building."
Bellavia traded weapons with his M249 SAW gunner and stepped into enemy fire to create an avenue of escape for him and his platoon. Once outside, they called for fire support from a nearby Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which pounded the location with 35 mm high explosive rounds.
Once the Bradley volley ceased, Bellavia returned to the house where he cleared the home of enemy insurgents with only his SAW and a knife.
Bellavia was up against multiple insurgents armed with rocket propelled grenades, AK-47 and machine gun fire. He succeeded, Bellavia had saved his platoon.
While the fight was won, the battle for Fallujah raged on. Bellavia would lose more members of his unit to include Sims, his commander, and 1st Lt. Edward Iwan, the executive officer. Losing both men just two days after the house fight was an emotional blow to the unit.
"It was a tough time. He (Sims) was a good friend of mine," Walter said. Shortly after the death of Sims and Iwan, Walter rejoined his company and resumed his role as commander. He would finish the deployment with his men and return home. "It leaves you feeling guilty," he said.
Fifteen years later on June 25, 2019, Bellavia was recognized for his heroic actions on that Nov. 10 night half a world away. During a White House ceremony, he received the Medal of Honor surrounded by his Family, platoon members and the Gold Star Families of their fallen comrades.
"The best part was being up there with the unit on national television," Bellavia said.
Gold Star Families had an opportunity to meet the platoon member, some for the first time. Bellavia recounted "there was a lot of healing that day."
Since returning from Iraq, Bellavia fulfilled his military contract and transitioned to civilian life. While he became a civilian, he continued working with military personnel by cofounding a veteran advocacy group. In 2006 and 2008 he would return to the familiar town of Fallujah as a reporter and return to write a book detailing his experiences in the area with the units he had embedded with. After receiving his Medal of Honor, he began touring the country to speak with Soldiers, veterans and high school students. His tour was one of the reason he came to Fort Jackson, the other was to reunite with his old company commander and another member of their unit, Fort Jackson's Leader Training Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Brandon R. Knicely.
"He knew everything there was about being a master gunner," Bellavia said. "Always the teacher, he would explain things to you without emasculating you. He was just a great guy."
Walter recounted that Knicely "was an exemplary Soldier."
While Bellavia did reunite with his unit members, he also toured the installation with Funk and spoke with trainees. For most of the trainees, he will be the only Medal of Honor recipient they will meet during their military careers. He answered the trainee's questions and spoke of the brotherhood and bonds that military service builds. When asked about the actions that earned him his award he repeats his "house fight" answer and redirects the conversation to speak about his fellow unit members.
"I look back and as horrible as combat is, I would do anything for a time machine. To have just one day back where I was around that quality of person again," Bellavia said. "I love those guys and this award, it allows me to run around and talk about them."
Bellavia even allows the trainees to hold his award. While the medal is small, the back is engraved with his rank, name and unit. After a scare in Los Angeles, where someone attempted to take the award, he keeps it in the breast pocket of his sports blazer to ensure its safe keeping.
"I want to change the way this award is received for my generation," Bellavia said. Let's get back to the Army and let's find the next guy that is going to do great things for our country."