David G. Bellavia, a 43-year-old retired staff sergeant from Lyndonville, New York, was an infantryman in the U.S. Army for six years. But what he is best known for is his role in the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, dubbed Operation Phantom Fury, on the night of Nov. 10, 2004. In what was considered the highest point of conflict in the Iraq War, Bellavia almost single-handedly saved his squad in a dark building filled with enemy gunfire, in the process killing four insurgents and wounding a fifth.
In honor of his heroic actions, Bellavia was awarded the Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest recognition for valor in combat—at a White House ceremony on June 25, just a week before his visit to Fordham.
“Fordham has six Medal of Honor recipients [among its alumni],” said Matthew Butler, the University’s director of military and veterans’ services and a former Marine, in his opening remarks. “So it’s a great honor to have a living American treasure with us today.”
Inside the Bateman Room in the Law School building, Bellavia spoke to an audience of approximately 50 people—the majority of them veterans—about his childhood, life and death on the battlefield, and what he hopes the future holds for veterans across America.
Stories from Very Different Battlefields
His stories of the past, often told with a waggish sense of humor, brought both laughter and knowing nods from the audience, especially fellow veterans. Among those anecdotes was the time he took a hairdryer to boot camp. But some stories were tragic, like the time he lost his command sergeant major—his “surrogate father”—on the battlefield.
Bellavia was born to a family of six in Lyndonville, a village located four miles south of Lake Ontario. He said when he was a child, his grandfather, a World War II veteran, would tell him stories about wartime—“noble adventures” about people fighting against evil and tyranny.
It was a stark contrast to his early military years in Kosovo, where “evil” appeared in the form of chicken robbers.
“I remember we would get a briefing like, ‘Mr. McMetty’s chickens have been stolen,’ and be like … ‘It’s go time,’” he said in a hushed tone, as the audience laughed.
But throughout his six-year military career, he endured far worse. Bellavia recalled the first time he was shot at. He felt a fluctuation of emotions: fear, exhilaration, anger.
Then there was the Second Battle of Fallujah. Fifteen years ago, in a military campaign to defeat the Islamic insurgents in the stronghold city, Bellavia found himself in a concrete building, engaged in close-quarters combat.
“Fallujah was like the Superbowl of urban fighting … You’re shooting automatic gunfire at point-blank range in concrete structures. Everyone’s got a gouge, a wound, a cut. Glass, metal fragments—you name it,” Bellavia recalled. “Guys clearing out their eyes of glass and metal, and you’re constantly looking at that guy next to you. And no matter how bad they’re hurt, you just gotta keep … you gotta take the threat out. Whoever shot at us has to die, or we’re all gonna die.”
For a long time, he said, he hated the enemy. But eventually, he realized that he wasn’t fighting because he hated the “bad guys”; he was fighting because he loved the “good guys”—his country, his unit, and every parent to whom he made a promise to bring their sons and daughters home. And in the process, he saw his enemies in a new light.
Respect for the Enemy
“I looked at the enemy with great respect. They believed in what they were doing. These men were giving their lives for what they believe in,” Bellavia explained. “I may not understand it. I’m not gonna stop shooting. But I respect the hell out of them.”
In a conversation with the event’s moderator, Gerry Byrne, FCRH ’66—vice chairman of Penske Media Corporation and a Marine combat veteran who served in the Vietnam War—Bellavia also touched on the transition from the battlefield to civilian life.
“It’s one of the most difficult parts of being a veteran,” said Byrne.“When I came home from Vietnam, I literally got spit on in uniform at the airport. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
But those Vietnam vets paved the way for later generations of soldiers, Bellavia said.
“When I came home from the airport, I had two Vietnam guys crying, and they told me, ‘Welcome home, I love you,’” Bellavia said to Byrne. “It was your generation that made sure our generation was treated with dignity and respect that you didn’t get.”
In the future, Bellavia said he wants to see not only more student veterans, but also more veteran professors, administrators, and CEOs—veterans “in the highest echelons of elected office, in professional work.”
‘We Don’t Leave People Behind’
A U.S. Army veteran in the audience asked Bellavia for advice on another group of veterans—those who struggle with suicidal thoughts. Nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
“There’s a sense that we don’t belong anymore. There’s this idea that ‘Everything was easier when I was over there.’ I woke up, I had a mission, I had a purpose, I had a job, I was appreciated, I was respected. [Then] I come home, and everyone looks at me, waiting for me to snap,” Bellavia said, as several audience members held up their phones and recorded his voice. “But you know what? You’re a damn soldier … I wouldn’t expect you to quit on me when we’re getting shot at; I wouldn’t expect you to quit now. We need you. We don’t leave people behind in a firefight. [And] we don’t leave them behind when we come home.”