What Do You Do When You're Awarded The Highest Honor In The Military? Go To Disneyland, Of Course
Retired Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia isn't accustomed to the fancy hardware around his neck: a golden star topped with an eagle holding the word "valor" in its talons, all suspended by a blue ribbon.
"You hand the award to someone, and it's almost like a newborn baby," he said, laughing. "I'm like, 'Support the head! Don't let it bend!'"
Bellavia is the only living Iraq War veteran to get the Medal of Honor, the military's highest citation for valor. And the award was a long time coming.
"I certainly had no idea this was happening -- after 15 years," Bellavia said. President Donald Trump presented him with the medal at a White House ceremony on June 25.
Bellavia's courage during Operation Phantom Fury -- the second battle of Fallujah -- has been well-documented. There was a war correspondent tagging along to report on his service: TIME Magazine journalist Michael Ware was embedded with Bellavia's squad during intense fighting in Fallujah. Bellavia also wrote a book about his time in the infantry, called House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.
The short version: On Nov. 10, 2004, Bellavia risked his life to save a squad of men who were pinned down under heavy machine gun fire in Fallujah. He then (nearly) single handedly cleared a house full of enemy insurgents.
Here's a portion of Ware's account of the operation:
Inside they find Bellavia alive and on the hunt. Upstairs he scans the bedrooms. An insurgent jumps out of the cupboard. Bellavia falls down and fires, spraying the man with bullets. At some point another insurgent drops out of the ceiling. Yet another runs to a window and makes for the garden. Bellavia hits him in the legs and lower back as he flees. When it's over, four insurgents are dead; another has escaped badly wounded. To Bellavia, [Staff Sgt. Colin] Fitts says, "That's a good job, dude. You're a better man than me." Bellavia shakes his head. "No, no, no," he mutters.
According to Bellavia, there was nothing particularly special about the feat. In the moment, "you don't even think of it being above and beyond the call of duty, because it's your turn."
Bellavia was originally awarded a Silver Star, but that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor during a several year review of combat citations launched by the Obama administration in 2015. At the time, the Pentagon faced criticism that it was being too stingy with medals for post-9/11 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were getting valor citations at a rate much lower than service members from WWII or Vietnam.
Since then, dozens of medals have been upgraded, including five Medals of Honor -- Bellavia among them.
He said he believes there are more Iraq War vets waiting to be recognized.
"Just in Fallujah, there's got to be at least five or six others," he said. "Then you've got Mosul, and you've got Baghdad, Sadr City, Najaf, Muqdadiyah, all these other places. I just can't believe that this is it."
A new Pentagon policy announced in April will move the valor award nominating process along more quickly and potentially lead to more medal upgrades for soldiers like Bellavia.
TOUR OF SOCAL
What do you do when you've been recognized among a select few U.S. military fighters who've shown the highest levels of bravery and self-sacrifice?
Tinseltown was high on the list. Along with his wife and three children, Bellavia toured Hollywood and Orange County over the weekend, hitting speaking engagements in Yorba Linda and downtown L.A., visiting Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, and touring Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A full day at Disneyland in Anaheim was also on the itinerary.
Bellavia was the guest of honor on Saturday at Disney's Flag Retreat ceremony, a daily afternoon ritual in Town Square just past the park's entrance. The ceremony has been around since opening day in 1955. It includes the Disneyland Band and the Dapper Dans performing patriotic music.
When the band strikes up each military branch's traditional songs, veterans from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force are invited to step forward to be recognized.
After the music subsided, a small crowd of park visitors gathered around Bellavia, eager to shake his hand or take a selfie.
Marine Corps vet Douglas Settell, in town from Sacramento, thanked Bellavia for his service.
"It's an honor," said Settell, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Okinawa, Japan, and Twentynine Palms, where he drove trucks and worked as a cook in his nearly seven years in the Marine Corps. "It's all about the team. They go through a lot to make sure that everybody hopefully makes it back."
Bellavia says he doesn't want to exploit the attention the award brings, but he has goals, including recruiting: he hopes to encourage a more diverse group of American youth to consider the military as a career option.
"I want to remind people about the men I served with. And also the fact that young people need to put their communities and their country before themselves," he said.
Part of that mission means staying visible and meeting as many people as possible. But Bellavia admitted he wasn't sure what to expect on the Southern California leg of his travels. Los Angeles is a bastion of liberal politics, portrayed in some corners of the media as holding anti-military views.
"Our cable news tells us they hate the military, and they hate us," Bellavia said.
Far from the cold shoulder, Bellavia said he's been surprised by the warm welcome he's felt from Angelenos and locals in other big cities.
"When I came to L.A. and New York, I thought I was going to have to fight off protesters and whatnot," he said. "None of that's true. I'm just surrounded by kindness and love and people that are appreciative. And everyone is so respectful and so kind."
"I want people to just get rid of all of the stigma and the cliches," Bellavia said. "We're healthy as a country and as a people. We might not agree with who holds what office, but our military is beloved, our citizens are appreciative of our freedoms, and I'm seeing that firsthand across the country."