Best of the Best: David Bellavia and the Battle of Fallujah
All of this happened in the space of just a few minutes, but that was all the time needed for David Bellavia to become a legend.
By 2004, the war in Iraq had begun to shift from rooting out the remaining former members of the Sadaam Hussein regime and toward suppressing the growing insurgent groups sweeping the country. Funded by former Ba’athist leaders and outside sources, they grew in numbers and power until they became the dominant threat on the battlefield. In the west, the city of Fallujah saw some of the heaviest fighting, when US Marines conducted an inconclusive battle to clear the area of one of the largest contingents of enemy fighters in the country. That unsuccessful operation emboldened thousands of additional insurgents and new recruits to flood into the city, now mostly evacuated of non-combatants after the first major battle.
Now, in November of that year the city was a major enemy stronghold, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself was believed to be in Fallujah, spoiling for a fight with the Americans.
His troops, supplemented by foreign mujahadeen, proceeded to turn the city into a battlefield. They dug tunnels, anti-vehicle ditches, fighting positions, and countless IEDs. Entire houses were turned into enormous traps, loaded with fuel and munitions, set to be detonated the moment US troops established themselves inside. Chokepoints were created with cement barriers and disabled vehicles to funnel soldiers into well-prepared shooting lanes.
This was the fortress that over 13,000 US, British, and Iraqi forces attacked on the night of November 7th, 2004, in what was the most intense urban operation American soldiers had participated in since Hue City in Vietnam almost 40 years earlier. Operation Phantom Fury.
Three days into that battle, and exhausted, the men of A Co, 2/2 IN had been reduced to clearing entire houses and compounds in the pitch darkness with just a handful of soldiers. During one of these assaults, a squad had become trapped inside a room, ambushed by heavy enemy fire from a fighting position created under a flight of stairs leading to the second floor, pinning them inside.
Outside the house, a young staff sergeant in the platoon named David Bellavia made a split-second decision that would not only save the lives of his brothers but earn him a place of honor among America’s greatest military heroes.
Realizing the danger, and completely ignoring his own safety, Bellavia swapped his weapon with another platoon member’s M249 machine gun and charged into the house, spraying rounds to suppress the enemy. The ferocity of his one-man attack allowed the soldiers to fall back safely, and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle was called forward to reduce the enemy position. Unfortunately, due to the location of the structure and surrounding walls the crew couldn’t engage them directly.
With unknown numbers of enemy fighters in positions all around them, Bellavia knew they couldn’t leave a pocket of well-armed fighters positioned in the rear of his unit. Many would have left the position isolated for follow-on units to deal with, but Bellavia was there, and ready to do the job. Without hesitation he again charged into the house. A close-quarters gunfight erupted, and he immediately took down one insurgent and wounded another who fled deeper into the dark, fortified house.
As the American assault force fought block to block and house to house, warplanes pounded enemy strongpoints, scout snipers cleared rooftops, and tanks leveled fortified fighting positions. Amidst all that chaos, Bellavia readied himself and plunged deeper into the house, after the wounded enemy. It was his 29th birthday.
On November 10th, 1975, in wintry Buffalo NY, David G. Bellavia was born. His father was a dentist, who supported him and his four older brothers. He attended Lyndonville Central High School and then Houghton Academy. Following his 1994 graduation, Bellavia studied at the University at Buffalo, pursuing degrees in biology and theater. However, the hand of fate decided on a different plan for the young New Yorker.
For personal reasons David chose to join the pre-war Army in 1999, enlisting as an 11B (infantryman). He wasn’t the first in his family to join the service. His grandfather also served in the Army and saw action during the Normandy campaign in the European theater during World War Two.
In the summer of 2003, Bellavia’s unit (2/2nd BN/1ST ID) deployed to Kosovo for nine months. At the same time, continents away, the US military was rumbling to life, staging troops across the Middle East to gear up for the largest ground invasion since 1991.
In Kosovo, as the 2nd Iraq War raged, Bellavia’s unit got unofficial word that they would soon be moving into the combat zone. In the words of a 2/2 commander at the time, “There were only so many available units in the Army. The writing was on the wall.”
Despite having no official orders yet, the 2nd BN began an intensive training cycle in preparation for what everyone knew was coming. While still executing their peacekeeping mission, the soldiers conducted live-fires, convoy drills, urban combat training, and the myriad other tasks needed to conduct war-time operations.
Sure enough, the day they redeployed to the United States, Bellavia and his unit received the official orders.
They were going to war.
As the battle raged around him, and with little time to spare, Bellavia moved to clear the remainder of the floor. As he did so another enemy fighter attacked him from the stairs. Moments later the previously wounded insurgent also returned to help his comrade, but it wasn’t enough. Bellavia took them both down, however he was immediately engaged again, this time by an insurgent who had been hiding in a closet, invisible in the darkness.
They exchanged gunfire, and the enemy fighter fled, wounded. Bellavia chased him up the stairs to another fortified room. He threw in a grenade and rushed in behind the explosion. When he entered, he saw the room was filled with propane tanks and plastic explosives which, incredibly, had survived the grenade blast. However, the enemy fighter was still alive, and rather than risk a stray shot hitting one of the canisters and leveling the building, Bellavia subdued the man with his hands, ending the fight.
All of this happened in the space of just a few minutes, but that was all the time needed for David Bellavia to become a legend. He would continue to fight through Operation Phantom Fury and remained in Iraq until February 2005.
Bellavia left the Army in August 2005 as a Staff Sergeant but returned to Iraq twice as an embedded reporter in 2006 and 2008, covering the ongoing combat in Ramadi, Fallujah and Diyala.
Initially awarded a Silver Star for his actions during the battle, in 2019 the citation was upgraded to a Medal of Honor, which Bellavia was presented at the White House by President Trump on June 25th of the same year.
David Bellavia’s actions were, in the words of his own citation and those of the scores of American heroes who have come before and after him, in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect the greatest credit upon himself and the United States military.
If that wasn’t incredible enough, a portion of David’s actions that night were actually captured on film by Michael Ware, an embedded reporter who was present with his platoon and managed to record the fight from his position on the first floor after he went back into the house, making Bellavia only the 2nd servicemember to have his MoH exploits recorded.
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