'The Audie Murphy of His Generation:' Why David Bellavia's Medal of Honor Is Making History

Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia (second from left) attends a Medal of Honor reception at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, Arlington VA, June 24, 2019 (U.S. Army/Sgt. Kevin Roy)
Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia (second from left) attends a Medal of Honor reception at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, Arlington VA, June 24, 2019 (U.S. Army/Sgt. Kevin Roy)

President Trump's presentation of the Medal of Honor to an Army Iraq War veteran has reignited a discussion in the military community over why it took 16 years to select a living recipient for the nation's highest award for valor.

Former Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia is credited with stepping into a barrage of enemy fire in an enemy-held house in Fallujah in 2004 to suppress the enemy with an M249 squad automatic weapon, an act that opened an escape window for a squad of pinned-down 1st Infantry Division soldiers.

Bellavia, a squad leader with A Company 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, then grabbed a M16A4 rifle, re-entered the darkened house and killed several enemy fighters, one with a knife during a hand-to-hand struggle.

Bellavia is the sixth recipient of the Medal of Honor for combat in Iraq, but the first living medal recipient from that war.

Retired Army Maj. Drew Dix, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, acknowledged that it's remarkable that there has only been one living recipient of the Medal of Honor so far out of combat in Iraq. But, he said, in many cases the difference between a living and posthumous recipient can be less than an inch.

"In our world, whether they are living or posthumous, they received it; whether you are alive or not -- it's just a half inch from a bullet," said Dix, who received his Medal of Honor in 1968 in heavy fighting during the Vietnam War.

But military historian Doug Sterner said he has been concerned for years by the "low numbers of Medals of Honor that have been awarded for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Sterner is a 20-year military historian who created a first-of-its kind online database of military valor awards.

There have been 23 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in support of the Global War on Terrorism, Sterner said. Of the 17 Medals of Honor for actions in Afghanistan, 13 have been awarded to living recipients, Sterner said.

"They have conducted reviews of other wars and some 100 Medals of Honor awarded in the last 19 years, and only a little over 20 of them went to guys in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Sterner said.

"It seems like we are a little bit better at finding heroes from wars [of] decades past than recognizing the heroes that are right under our nose."

Sterner said he began pushing for the Pentagon in 2011 to conduct a review of valor medals awarded for Iraq and Afghanistan, which then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter launched in 2016.

In addition to upgrading Bellavia's Silver Star to the Medal of Honor, the review upgraded 12 lower valor awards to the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, in the Army alone.

Part of the reason for the low numbers of Medals of Honor in recent wars is that they haven't been large-scale, sustained conflicts like Vietnam was, Sterner said.

"By and large, most of the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan had not really seen sustained combat in their military careers, so they didn't have something to gauge it by," Sterner said. "The commanders in the Vietnam War had served in the Korean War and had seen Medal of Honor Valor. In World War II many of the top commanders had served in World War I.

"For that reason," Sterner added, "I think there were a lot of times awards were not given the priority that they should have been."

Too, actions themselves may be judged a little differently compared to past wars, even though the criteria for the Medal of Honor hasn't changed, Sterner said.

"Societally, we now tend to appreciate more the more altruistic Medal of Honor actions," Sterner said. "In other words, a wounded soldier that despite his wounds defends his position to save his buddies or the heroic medic that under fire goes out to recover the wounded or the guy who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of his comrades."

Still, Sterner said, war is also about "aggressiveness; it's about killing."

"I think when you look at David Bellavia's citation, this guy was the Audie Murphy of his generation," Sterner said, comparing Bellavia to the most decorated soldier in World War II.

"He went into that building, going room to room kicking butt, hand-to-hand. The guy was a badass.

"I think sometimes we try to shy away from and forget that is exactly what war heroism in combat is all about."

As a staff sergeant, Drew Dix received his Medal of Honor for actions Jan. 31-Feb.1 1968 when the city of Chau Phu, Vietnam was under attack by two battalions of Viet Cong, according to his citation.

While serving as an advisor to South Vietnamese forces, Dix is credited with saving many civilian lives and killing several enemy fighters.

"Learning that a nurse was trapped in a house near the center of the city, S/Sgt. Dix organized a relief force, successfully rescued the nurse, and returned her to the safety of the Tactical Operations Center," the citation states.

Dix then led another force to rescue eight civilians located in a building under heavy mortar and small arms fire, the citation states.

"Upon approaching a building, he was subjected to intense automatic rifle and machine gun fire from an unknown number of Viet Cong. He personally assaulted the building, killing 6 Viet Cong, and rescuing 2 Filipinos," the citation states.

The following day, Dix led a 20-man force through "intense enemy fire" and "cleared the Viet Cong out of the hotel, theater, and other adjacent buildings within the city."

Dix is also credited for capturing 20 prisoners, including a high-ranking Viet Cong official.

"He then attacked enemy troops who had entered the residence of the Deputy Province Chief and was successful in rescuing the official's wife and children," his citation reads.

Dix said there are likely many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in past wars, where there were no witnesses around to document extreme cases of heroism.

After Bellavia receives his Medal of Honor, Dix will send him a letter congratulating him and welcoming him into the society.

"For that point on ... he will assume the responsibility of representing not only himself and his service, but those that serviced with him and didn't survive and more importantly those that may have performed deeds that there were no witnesses for deeds greater than any one of us," Dix said.

"That's a pretty serious responsibility."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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