He held the Remington 870 shotgun — chambered and ready to fire. David Bellavia knew what he had to do. If he failed to act, he and his family could die.
His mother, still recovering from spine surgery, lay asleep with his father in the master bedroom as two armed men had walked into the house.
“Is Jason here?” said one of the men. Knowing no one by that name lived there, Bellavia went into the basement to retrieve the firearm, as the intruders began cutting cables to his parents’ TV.
The men who stood before him seemed in a daze, stumbling and buzzed.
Bellavia, home on break from college, had been burning trash in the backyard, when a beaten, patchwork-framed car screeched to a halt at his family’s sprawling ranch-style home, which sat in a rural swath of sparsely-populated upstate New York.
Terrified, Bellavia aproached the shirtless intruders, who stood, seemingly willing to shoot him.
They looked at him — all 5 feet, 11 inches of him, and smirked.
“They didn’t see me as a threat,” Bellavia remembered, recounting the 1998 robbery.
With his finger on the trigger, he imagined the moment after he fired his weapon — blood spilling across the wooden flooring, and the men’s lifeless bodies sprawled in his living room.
He couldn’t fire his weapon.
“I was afraid to kill them,” Bellavia said. “I’m going to blast these guys, but I don’t want to hurt them. I didn’t want to see the blood.”
In that instance, Bellavia realized he didn’t have the courage to defend his family. He stood motionless as the men ransacked his family’s home.
For much of his 22 years, he had talked about enlisting in the Army — joining the ranks that his grandfather, Joseph Brunacini, had so proudly served. Papa Joe, a radio operator during World War II, had told him harrowing stories of war since Bellavia’s childhood in Waterport, a rural farming town of 1,000 residents, just south of the Lake Ontario shoreline. As a child, Bellavia dreamed of bravely defending his country in the infantry.
And yet, in his opportunity to prove himself, Bellavia froze. The men finished packing their loot into trash cans and left the house, ultimately deciding not to discharge their weapons, or search the master bedroom. They climbed back into their car and began to drive away.
Bellavia’s father, William, awoke from his sleep, jolted by the noises in the living room. He ran to the front door armed with a .357 handgun, in the futile hopes of catching the young men.
His father turned to David as he walked out the door.
“What are you doing?” William Bellavia said to his son, as police sirens blared in the distance. “You had a gun.”
David, ashamed that he didn’t act, could only shake his head. He made a silent vow to never fail his family again. The painful sting of that summer afternoon would haunt him for the rest of his life and during his six years in the Army.
Bellavia would take his rite of passage far from Orleans County’s harsh winters and Amish buggies chugging along its two-lane roads. Bellavia would test himself under the harshest circumstances imaginable in an abandoned section of Fallujah.
“I guess at some point we’re all little kids trying to impress our parents,” Bellavia said. “That decision to join the military was really about … being in a position where I could look at my father and say ‘I got this. I’ll take care of all that stresses you.'”
He would leave Waterport for basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and would ultimately join the infantry. His ultimate chance to prove his worth would come five years later, in the deserts of Iraq.
Trial in battle
Bellavia and his unit found themselves in the eye of a brewing storm during the beginning of some of the worst fighting American Soldiers saw in Iraq, the second battle of Fallujah.
Insurgents attacked U.S. troops at near point-blank range during the fall of 2004, engaging in intense firefights in Fallujah’s abandoned buildings. By then, the baby-faced Soldier had been hardened by 10 grueling months in Iraq.
For years, that summer afternoon in Waterport had haunted him. Bellavia doesn’t remember if he thought about it that autumn night in Fallujah, as he stood outside of a three-story house where a group of insurgents had just ambushed his unit inside.
But his story has been told. Time magazine featured his heroics and later an HBO documentary “Only the Dead” provided a first-hand account. Director Ron Howard and Brian Grazer had optioned Bellavia’s story for a feature film, a process that was ultimately shelved. And Bellavia himself later published a narrative of that harrowing battle in a gripping memoir.
But those who know him best say the staff sergeant shied away from recognition and never sought personal glory.
He saw the value of serving and didn’t want fame, he even shunned it.
Bellavia has disputed certain details of some accounts of that day. Some eyewitnesses said that he found something within his core that he didn’t know he had.
Thirty minutes. For that half hour, armed only with a rifle and a knife, he withstood the unthinkable in a shadowy house of horrors.
To Bellavia, it might as well have been an eternity.
The staff sergeant had called for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to suppress fire on the outside of the building and eliminate insurgents on the first floor. Then, Bellavia asked Staff Sgt. Scott Lawson and two machine gunners to remain perched in the adjacent courtyard to cover him.
Minutes earlier, insurgents had bloodied his men inside the house during a vicious sneak attack. Bellavia hoped to force the insurgents out of the house and into the fire of his gunners. The staff sergeant had to decide if he wanted to wait for air support or attempt to drive the enemies out himself.
Bellavia had made up his mind.
“Yeah,” he recalled saying to his platoon. “I wanna go in there after them. I wanna go.”
Perhaps the burn of that home intrusion memory nudged Bellavia forward, he said. But more likely it was the encompassing desire to defend his fellow Soldiers, the battle brothers he wanted to keep alive — the second family he didn’t want to fail.
Bellavia cursed and grabbed his M16 rifle. He headed back into the house knowing that he might not return.
Hunting the invisible adversary
The 12-house block in the city of 350,000 had been mostly abandoned. Bellavia’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Edward Iwan, called for tanks to form a cordon around the area, trapping the insurgents.
Fallujah resembled a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Bellavia wrote. Lying near the Euphrates River in Anbar Province, the area became a hotbed of violence, making patrols a tense, miserable slog.
The possibility of an enemy combatant hiding in the dark corners of buildings weighed heavily on Bellavia’s mind.
“A combat infantryman’s job is like playing infield in baseball,” Bellavia said. “You are always thinking, what am I going to do if the ball’s hit to me? You must constantly evaluate threats.”
Outnumbered by U.S. forces and their allies, the insurgents used the backdrop of the city to their advantage, hiding in the shadows and places unseen. They had had faced the adversaries like the ones they encountered in Fallujah before. But not in the same numbers.
Several of the insurgents had previously served in the Iraqi army. They had interpreters and their own film crew documenting their exploits. The insurgents operated in the shadows using American weapons they had seized from the Iraqi military.
Bellavia’s senses trained him to sense danger.
If he saw a clean plastic cup in a dusty bombed out building, instinctively his head would circle and he’d scan the area meticulously for signs of hidden adversaries.
Bellavia recalls seeing bodies of insurgents with syringes stuck in their arms. They didn’t buckle when they felt pain. They kept attacking when their bodies should have shut down. “You’re fighting against people that aren’t really making rational decisions,” Bellavia said.
The city had become home to guerrilla insurgent groups and many of its citizens fled. In his 2006 book, “House to House: An Epic Memoir of War,” Bellavia compared the U.S. invasion of Fallujah to his generation’s version of Normandy in World War II.
“My granddad fought in the hedgerows,” Bellavia said. “I thought about what D-Day was like, what World War II was like.
“So when we dismounted and nothing was there, it was really creepy to just see nothing. The enemy was basically begging us to come out and engage them on their terms.”
Although largely a Marine Corps operation, Soldiers helped capture the city during the deadliest fighting of Fallujah’s second battle, also known as Operation Phantom Fury.
The killing of four American military contractors in March of 2004 ignited the conflict, setting off a momentous wave of close-quarter battles in the months to come. And U.S. military intelligence reports pointed to one man: Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
U.S. forces suspected Al-Zarqawi’s involvement in hundreds of murders including the killing of 35 children in Baghdad and the two car bombings that ended the lives of 102 Iraqi police recruits.
The CIA believed Al-Zarqawi himself beheaded two Americans.
Bellavia’s unit — 3rd Platoon, A Company, Task Force 2-2, 1st Infantry Division — received orders to hunt anti-Iraqi forces with ties to Al-Zarqawi within a small section of the city.
Seemingly identical houses dotted the Askari District in the northeastern sector of Fallujah, which formerly housed Saddam Hussein’s general officers and upper-class Iraqi families, Bellavia learned. Empty buildings with dimmed windows loomed overhead as Bellavia and his troops patrolled the city.
Tragic circumstances had thrust many in Bellavia’s unit into new leadership roles. Just days before, the task force lost a respected leader to enemy fire. Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Faulkenburg, the task force’s father figure and experienced combat veteran, was the first casualty, killed by small arms fire.
“To lose him the way that we lost him,” Bellavia said. “It was really tough.”
Other NCOs in the task force moved up in the ranks, young officers took over companies. In the eight months Bellavia had spent in Iraq, 27 Soldiers in his brigade combat team had died.
On Nov. 10, Bellavia’s 29th birthday, his troops entered the hot zone under a darkened sky. Tired and hungry, he and his men had not eaten or slept for 48 hours. Some, like Staff Sgt. Colin Fitts, fought through injuries. Fitts had suffered three gunshot wounds to his arm and his right knee.
Bellavia and his fellow unit members each rucked 60 pounds of gear: body armor, ammunition, water, night vision goggles.
Bellavia and his men cleared the first nine houses swiftly. In total, Bellavia estimates they checked and cleared 25 homes, including smaller apartment units. They found plenty of weapon caches: flak vests, bullets, AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, but no insurgents.
The Soldiers came upon the 10th house. Members of two squads moved quickly to secure the structure.
As Bellavia and his men walked through the front door of the house, bullets and tracer rounds spilled from every direction. Spc. Lance Ohle, a M249 squad automatic weapon gunner acted first as he opened the door and immediately put fire down on waiting insurgents.
“Had Ohle not reflexively reacted the way he hid, that ambush would have ended at that door,” Bellavia said.
Sgt. Warren Misa placed himself in front of enemy bullets as he pulled Ohle back from the door. Rounds from the insurgents hiding in the home combined with ammunition from Bellavia’s squad members outside criss-crossed inside the house. Bricks and debris buckled from the crossfire. Rounds ripped through the bricked walls. Soldiers’ startled screams bellowed in the three-story structure.
“It was like they took a hornet’s nest and threw it on a fire,” Bellavia said. “Bullets were everywhere. And we walked right into an ambush.”
Several U.S. Soldiers suffered injuries on their faces.
Bellavia reacted instinctively, showering bullets with another Soldier’s SAW weapon toward the insurgents, who hid behind the cover of a makeshift bunker underneath the stairs.
He charged toward the combatants peppering gunfire rounds in their direction. The staff sergeant’s barrage allowed his unit members to exit the house and return to the street. Bellavia called for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for suppressive fire.
Running the gauntlet
In truth, Bellavia did not know how many insurgents remained in the house. But he decided he would run back in anyway, thinking only three remained.
He re-entered the same structure where minutes earlier his men had been wounded, followed by a Time magazine reporter. Upon entering, he noticed an insurgent above loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Knowing the danger it posed to his unit, Bellavia swiftly cut him down with his M16.
In the moments that followed, Bellavia would act swiftly and decisively — what he could not do that afternoon in Waterport.
“I was once a meek boy with a coward’s heart,” Bellavia wrote. “Not here. Not anymore.”
An insurgent fired at Bellavia, as he ran toward the kitchen. Bellavia responded instinctively by shooting back at the man, wounding him in the back of the shoulder.
Witnesses would later say they could hear Bellavia yelling from outside of the house.
After he subdued the second insurgent, Bellavia heard voices from atop the staircase. He soon realized the enemy far outnumbered him. In the moments that followed, he would liken the fight to an internal spiritual battle.
“It was like a light switch went off,” he said.
He could hear insurgents murmuring a Muslim prayer in the kitchen. A devout Christian, his faith had been a central driving force in his life. Two of his older brothers attended seminary school. Bellavia could recite Bible verses on cue, and knew which ones fit a given situation. But as he walked through the house in Fallujah, his mind drew blanks. He tried to recite a prayer of his own.
Instead, he remembered watching a remake of the Exorcist at his unit’s barracks a few nights earlier.
“The power of Christ,” Bellavia began, “compels you.”
Bellavia realized he had not yet secured the master bedroom. He fired his weapon into the dark corners to clear the room.
Lawson emerged from the next room with a slumped, injured arm. He had half a magazine of ammo left.
Bellavia remembers the insurgents snickering at him. During those moments, he would think of the afternoon in Waterport and remember his failure.
But this time was different. He had endured nine months of rigorous training and practicing battle drills during 12-hour patrols in Kosovo. And he had the confidence of his leadership and his teammates.
He wouldn’t fail again.
“The cackling and disrespect of those guys in Fallujah — I go right back to (the afternoon in Waterport),” Bellavia said.
An insurgent wearing a white tank top ran down the stairs and fired toward Bellavia. As Bellavia struggled to find his bearings, chaos broke loose as the wounded man in the kitchen also fired, screaming as he unleashed rounds from an AK-47 rifle. Lawson, armed with only a pistol, shot at the insurgent, emptying a full magazine. During the standoff, a piece of debris lodged into Lawson’s shoulder. Unsure of the extend of the injury, Bellavia instructed Lawson and the journalist to leave.
The insurgent in the kitchen, still armed with the AK-47, charged toward the bedroom door. Bellavia fired back as he looked for an opening. The enemy combatant attacked recklessly and eventually left his shoulders exposed.
Bellavia didn’t waste time, first wounding his adversary, then firing the kill shot.
As he entered the room, he heard strange pushing noises and observed a six-door closet. As the insurgent on the stairs began to fire at him again.
Suddenly an insurgent emerged from one of the closet doors, crying out as he charged toward Bellavia with a belt-fed machine gun.
But the man tripped over a bed, losing his footing as a full closet fell over, providing some cover for Bellavia. As the insurgent attempted to leap over the bed, he lost his balance again. Bellavia fired several shots, mortally wounding him.
The insurgent on the stairs fled back to the next floor with Bellavia in pursuit. During the Bradley 25mm suppression, water tanks in the house had ruptured. Blood and foul water dripped from the staircase as Bellavia carefully made his way to the next floor. His stomach turned as the stench filled his nostrils. Admittedly, he had a weak stomach, and the foul water added to the tension.
Bellavia saw the insurgent’s bloody footprints led to a room on the next floor. His boots sloshed through the water as Bellavia made his way up the stairs. Suddenly another barrage of bullets whiffed toward him as he ducked at the landing.
After entering the room, Bellavia realized he had walked into a virtual death trap. Explosives and propane tanks lined the room.
He saw his next adversary: an older man armed with a Russian handgun. The man wore a bandolier of ammunition and had grey specks in his beard. In the frantic scramble to regain control, Bellavia pushed over the man, who had been clearly stronger than the other adversaries he had faced.
Bellavia attempted to twist the man’s body and strike him on the neck. But the man would not budge.
Bellavia removed his Kevlar helmet, but could not gather himself to execute a proper strike, as his equipment restricted his movement. Then he recalled that he had a foldable knife, given to him by his platoon sergeant.
Game-changer, Bellavia thought. He pulled the knife from his lower cargo pocket. He rose above the man and struck his head with the closed blade. Bellavia covered the man’s mouth, who responded by attempting to chew his hand.
Bellavia called for help to his unit members outside the house.
Suddenly a burning sensation surged from his abdomen as he felt his body drench in sweat. Bellavia looked down and realized that the man hid bitten him near his waist.
As the pain and fatigue began to overwhelm him, Bellavia remembered the blade he held in his hand.
He uncorked the weapon, raised his fist and pushed the blade into the back of the older man’s neck. Bellavia kept pressuring the knife until he felt it slip past his enemy’s collarbone.
Still clutching the insurgent’s head, Bellavia heard a hissing sound and the release of air.
He could smell the man’s final breath. At last, he lowered the man’s body to the floor.
“I’ve never seen a person die that close,” Bellavia said. “(The insurgent) died in a … defiant way.”
As Bellavia stood on the balcony, an insurgent fell and landed awkwardly nearby, dropping his AK-47 on the ground. Bellavia immediately fired rounds into the man’s lower body, mortally wounding him.
Smoke filled the room as five members of his squad arrived. Bellavia began to panic as he suddenly realized he had no helmet or protection if his teammates accidentally fired at him.
After his squad mates quickly recognized him, Bellavia struggled to his bearings, as he felt the room spinning and decided he needed to get some air.
He walked outside of the house and stood near a propane tank. He kicked his rifle and smoked a cigarette, his heart still racing.
“Bombs coming in,” a Soldier told him. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
A projectile from a U.S. aircraft careened toward the area, but turned out to be a dud. Minutes later another bomb landed and failed to detonate. Bellavia gathered his gear and called in his report to his platoon sergeant.
Bellavia’s exploits in the house left five men dead, saving the lives of his fellow squad members.
Soldiers carried out the four men Bellavia had killed and laid the corpses out on the street.
After searching the palm grove nearby for the last fallen enemy, they received word on their radio that a third bomb had been called in to clear the area of any remaining enemies. Unit members climbed into a Bradley, except for Fitts and Bellavia.
Fitts guided a shell-shocked Bellavia to a ditch. The staff sergeant covered Bellavia with bricks and debris as they waited for third wave of bombs to arrive.
“You’re all right,” Fitts said to his friend assuredly. “You did good, you did good.”
Bellavia listened as the earth above him rumbled and shook. He finally let himself throw up.
The Defense Department called Operation Phantom Fury Fallujah’s highest point of conflict that featured some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. In the days after Bellavia’s heroic actions, his unit would lose its company commander, Capt. Sean Sims, and Iwan, the Soldier who originally identified the targets in the city block, and a scout, Sgt. J.C. Matteson.
The following month, a total of 95 U.S. troops were killed and another 560 wounded.
In the years after he left the Army, Bellavia published his book and has re-told his story in press interviews and at public events. He kept his old uniforms, along with his commendations in a cardboard box inside his parent’s home.
Bellavia’s actions that fall likely saved the lives of three squads of Third Platoon, the Army reported. For his bravery on Nov. 10, 2004, the Defense Department awarded him a Silver Star, to go along with a Bronze Star, the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross, two Army Achievement awards and three Army Commendation Medals.
Last December, Bellavia received a phone call from President Donald Trump and learned that his Silver Star would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Bellavia will become the only living recipient of the award from the Iraq War when he accepts the medal on July 25.
When he recalls his year in Iraq’s harsh climate, he almost seems reluctant to add his name to the list of the Iraq War’s heroes.
“We’re not looking for attention,” Bellavia said. “The Army is about a sense of service. We’re here because our country needs us to be.”
Those who know Bellavia will say the honor is bittersweet. Bellavia shudders when he thinks of the great Marine heroes of Fallujah who never earned an award and never received fame or honors.
Today the ex-Soldier fights a different fight. After leaving the Army in 2005, he helped found Vets for Freedom, a political advocacy group comprised of Iraq and Afghan war veterans.
“This award,” Bellavia said of the Medal of Honor. “Nobody’s worthy … but if you’re going to give this award, you give it to the people who emptied their magazine of everything and didn’t walk off the battlefield.
“I never in a million years thought there’s anything I could ever do in the military, in life that’s worthy of this honor.”
He later attempted to run for Congress twice as a member of the Republican Party. In 2012 he joined a local Buffalo radio station where he co-hosts a talk radio show.
He said despite his harrowing experience inside the house in Fallujah, he rarely thinks about that day.
More often he is haunted by the hot afternoon in 1998, when he failed to act while his family was in danger.
“I think subconsciously (the afternoon in Waterport) has been a part of everything I’ve done,” Bellavia said. “I still think about that.”