Trump bestows Medal of Honor on first living Iraq War veteran
President Trump awarded the Medal of Honor last week to retired Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia for heroism during the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, making him the first living Iraq veteran to receive the nation’s highest military honor for valor.
In a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the president bestowed the award on Sgt. Bellavia, 43, for saving the lives of a squad of soldiers during brutal house-to-house fighting during the second battle of Fallujah on Nov. 10, 2004.
“It’s a very special day for you and for all of us — the nation, actually,” Mr. Trump said to applause from Sgt. Bellavia’s former unit members, family and others in recognizing his bravery during the war. He is the sixth soldier to receive the Medal of 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 Obama didn’t award any to Iraq service members, living or dead, during his eight years in office.
The Bush and Obama administrations were criticized for failing to adequately recognize valor in the war, which became deeply unpopular, especially on the left, as the U.S. deployment wore on and casualties rose.
Mr. Trump has voiced criticism of the Iraq War while paying tribute to those who served in harm’s way. 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.”
There have been 23 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in support of the global war on terrorism, according to Military Times. Of the 17 medals for action in Afghanistan, 13 have been awarded to living recipients.
Sgt. Bellavia was fighting in Operation Phantom Fury, in which more than 10,000 U.S. troops took back Fallujah, Iraq, from more than 3,000 insurgents who were entrenched in the urban battlefield. A squad leader with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, Sgt. Bellavia and his platoon were clearing out a block of 12 buildings when they became pinned down by enemy fire.
It was the third day of battle and Sgt. Bellavia’s 29th birthday.
“I walked into situations that were happening in real time, and I just had to react to it,” Sgt. Bellavia told reporters at the Pentagon. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
The White House said Sgt. Bellavia confronted a barrage of enemy fire from a house, using an M249 squad automatic weapon to suppress the enemy and allow a squad of 1st Infantry Division soldiers to escape. “David took over,” the president said. Sgt. Bellavia then grabbed an M16 rifle, re-entered the house and killed four enemy fighters and seriously wounded another after hunting them down in the dark. He killed one with a knife during a hand-tohand struggle because he was concerned about plastic explosives and propane tanks in the room.
Sgt. Bellavia later recalled in an interview for an Army oral history, “This is not a John Rambo moment. I’m really scared.”
“I never thought I would see love on a battlefield,” Sgt. Bellavia said of the fighting. “It’s horrible, it’s ghastly, it’s ghoulish. But you see people doing things for each other that they would never, ever do in any other circumstance, and it is a sight to see.”
Among the soldiers who were there that day was Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts, now retired.
“We couldn’t get out, couldn’t do anything,” Sgt. Fitts told reporters. “We were stuck there. And I had to ask David to help me out, and he did that. He put himself in the line of that fire and laid down a base of fire; overwhelmed the enemy long enough for me to get myself and the members of my squad out. Were it not for David Bellavia, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
The president said of Sgt. Bellavia, “David often tells young people Americans don’t want to fight, but if someone picks a fight with us, we will always win because we don’t fight for awards or commendations. We fight for our love of our country, our family and our unit. And that’s stronger than anything.”
Sgt. Bellavia, now a radio host in Buffalo, New York, was previously awarded the Silver Star. That honor was upgraded as part of a comprehensive review started by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in 2016 for valor awards from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He enlisted in the Army in July 1999 and was deployed in Kosovo. After his service in Iraq, he left active duty in 2005 and cofounded Vets for Freedom, a conservative political advocacy organization.
His grandfather, Joseph, 99, is a veteran of the Normandy campaign in World War II who earned the Bronze Star for his actions and often regaled his grandson with stories from the war. He watched the ceremony at home on TV, the president said.
Sgt. Bellavia’s wife, Deanna King, expressed delight and gratitude to the law enforcement officers who gave their family a police escort into the District of Columbia as they arrived from New York with their three children.
“I’m not going to lie,” she tweeted. “A police escort is pretty cool. Thank you.”
Her husband is the 3,469th American to receive the Medal of Honor.
President Trump applauded Sgt. Bellavia, who said the battlefield is “horrible, it’s ghastly, it’s ghoulish. But you see people doing things for each other that they would never, ever do in any other circumstance, and it is a sight to see.”