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How David Bellavia’s Medal of Honor came to be

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia handles an improvised explosive device found on a patrol in Muqdadiyah Iraq, March 2004. (Photo courtesy of David Bellavia/U.S. Army)

David Bellavia’s former commanding officer did everything he could to get the Buffalo-born Iraq War hero the military’s most prestigious medal.

But a detailed PowerPoint presentation that Col. Douglas R. Walter put together in early 2005, which showed how Bellavia saved lives in a battle in Iraq, wasn’t enough. When Bellavia got out of the Army, he got the nation’s third-highest military decoration, the Silver Star – and it came with no ceremony at all.

“I got a package in the mail that had a Silver Star in it,” Bellavia said in an interview Monday, a day before he is to become the first living Iraq War veteran to receive the nation’s top military honor.

Nearly 15 years later, at a White House ceremony on Tuesday, President Trump will drape the Medal of Honor around Bellavia’s neck.

To hear Bellavia tell it, he has another president to thank, too.

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“I have to give a lot of credit to President Obama,” said Bellavia, who hosted a conservative talk show on WBEN until recently.

Obama, along with then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, initiated a review of 1,100 post 9/11 military medal recipients to see if they deserved a higher honor.

“I’m told that that decorations board is where this award came from,” Bellavia said in the interview.

Bellavia’s path to the Medal of Honor came clearer in interviews with him and Walter, which followed a media roundtable at the Pentagon Monday where colleagues and witnesses retold the tale of his heroism.

“I just want to tell you that if it were not for David Bellavia, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said retired Sgt. First Class Colin O. Fitts. “So I’m extremely humbled and very appreciative.”

On the night of Nov. 10, 2004, Bellavia saved the lives of the men in his platoon. They were on a mission that night to clear a block of 12 buildings in Fallujah, then an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq. Entering the 10th of those buildings, the U.S. soldiers found themselves under fire from two insurgents under a stairwell.

Another insurgent started shooting out a window – meaning the Americans were trapped.

Enter Bellavia, machine gun in hand, firing as bullets whizzed past him. That forced the insurgents to hide, allowing Bellavia’s comrades to flee.

But Bellavia wasn’t done. He cleared the house himself, killing five insurgents along the way.

“David Bellavia had to go back in to that darkened nightmare of a house where he knew there was at least five or six suicidal jihadis waiting,” said Michael Ware, then a Time magazine journalist who was embedded with Bellavia’s unit. “I was there when he made that decision, when he took it upon himself. I watched him summon whatever emotion it was that drove him to go back in there.”

Ware said it was a “privilege to witness a Medal of Honor moment.”

Walter, Bellavia’s commanding officer, said in an interview that he recommended Bellavia for the Medal of Honor within a few months of the incident.

In addition to that PowerPoint presentation – which showed Bellavia moving through that house, picking off insurgent one by one – Walter pushed Bellavia’s case with his battalion and brigade commander.

“I think they were supportive,” he said.

But someone involved in the process was not. Walter never got a final word on why Bellavia did not get the Medal of Honor at the time: In fact, Walter only found out when Bellavia told him about the award he got in the mail.

Walter was shocked and thrilled when Bellavia called recently to say that he would be finally receiving that top honor.

“It was a little surreal,” Walter said.

It was even more surreal for Bellavia. He got several messages at work that a senior official at the Department of Defense wanted to talk to him.

At first, the two had trouble reaching each other.

“And then finally, we made time – and that senior DOD member was the commander in chief,” Bellavia said at the media roundtable.

Now the big question Bellavia faces is, what will his life be like once he’s honored as one of the nation’s top military heroes?

In the immediate future, he said, he will go to New York for some media outreach and other events. He will be free from official commitments by early July, but he said he will continue to work on recruitment and other matters for the Army for some time after that.

Bellavia – a candidate for Congress in 2012 – didn’t rule out another run for the current seat held by Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who is under federal indictment on insider trading charges.

For now, Bellavia said he has another calling.

“The Army has presented me an opportunity to make a difference, to reach out and to help recruitment, to help people better their lives,” he said in the interview. “I’d love to take advantage of that. And as long as they’ll have me, I’m in.”

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© 2019 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.