Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
In this bonus Veterans Day episode, we hear from Medal of Honor recipient David Bellavia.
Staff Sergeant Bellavia served in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2004. During the Second Battle of Fallujah, Bellavia cleared a house filled with 5 insurgents in order to save his squad. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at a White House ceremony in 2019.
In Bellavia’s new book, Remember the Ramrods, he reflects back on the events that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today in this bonus Veterans Day episode of Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll be hearing from Medal of Honor Recipient David Bellavia. Staff Sergeant Bellavia served in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2004. During the Second Battle of Fallujah, Bellavia cleared a house filled with 5 insurgents in order to save his squad. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at a White House ceremony in 2019.
SSG David Bellavia:
Yeah, it's been a gauntlet. So I grew up... My granddad, I'm blessed to still have him. He's 102 and he was a Normandy campaign vet, North Africa, Sicily. And I grew up hearing these stories about just service and how... It wasn't the Victorian sense of combat in the sense that war is awesome or war is great. It was that you just really can't appreciate what you have in life unless you've gone through something with other people. It was always the team, there was a sense of exploration where he learned difference, he worked through adversity, he worked with other people from all aspects of life. It was romantic to me, it was noble to me. And when I was in college, I just kept... I'm the youngest of four.
My dad was a dentist. All my brothers are super smart. They have all these degrees and they're all accomplished. And I just wanted so desperately to fight. I wanted to see if I could match up to what my granddad was. It was important to me. We had a home invasion when I was home from school at my parents' house. And I just completely didn't do any of the things I thought I could be or be the person I thought I could be. So I decided that my college career was over and I needed to get a degree at the University of Fort Benning, Georgia in Global Studies. And it's the best decision I ever made.
It was the first time I could remember a night of complete sleep and rest, was my first night at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was older than the rest of the guys but I just felt this is where I belong. Everyone was stressed out about they're not going to be able to have dip. They're not going to be able to have a cigarette. What are they going to do without alcohol? What are they going to do without their girl? And I just thought to myself, this is the easiest thing in the world. This is so much like all I have to do is what I'm told to do. And up until that point, that was never... There was so many other little shades of difficulty in life that I didn't have that was all absent in the army. And so it was to me the most simplistic existence in the world. Here's a shovel, I was fire guard. Make sure there's no fires, I could do that. I loved it. I loved every aspect of it. I embraced it. I just felt an overwhelming sense of peace when I was in uniform.
I met people... My unit we love differently. We worship differently. We cancel each other votes out every legend cycle. We were all from different walks of life. And I never had that experience where when you grow up in a community, you might just have one socioeconomic group. You might just have one ethnicity, one religion, there are no gay people in your hometown. I grew up in rural Western New York, you could get isolated. It's a little incubator of just like-minded people. In the army I had people from everywhere. And the only thing that we had together was trust. And I found it so weird when I came home as a civilian that we like before we trust as civilians. You go on a date, is this person worthy of my time? Is this person worthy of another date? Can I trust you? In the army I trusted... I still don't like half of these guys.
You know what I mean? You don't like, you trust. Trust is everything. And for me, I was dealing with people that I had no commonality with other than the fact that they wanted to be there with me. And that was such a beautiful experience that I don't care what you think, I don't care about any aspect. We disagree about as much as we can but we love and respect each other. And if that message in America can transcend, I don't think there's anything we can't accomplish. We take things far too seriously when we disagree, we found ways to disagree and fight together as one team because we were family. And that family is based on love. The definition of valor is love. And you don't fight because you hate the enemy, you fight because you love each other, you love your country, you love your team, you love those individuals. And it was like being a surrogate father and it made me a better person. It made me a better citizen. It made me a better man.
I'd like to say that it was something that was... Look, you get a lot of attention when you get an award. It's awkward. It's not the way we're raised. It's not the way the military, the values are very clear that it's about selflessness and about other people and not you. NCOs, we eat last. We go to bed last. We make sure everyone else is okay before you're okay. That's our oath, that's who we are. But I talk to all these people all the time that stacked on houses and there was nothing in them. You drove down a road and there was no IED. That doesn't change the type of man or woman who does that. They just didn't get the result they were prepared for. If there is someone on the other side of the door that wants to cause you harm, that's when you start to see people do what we're trained to do.
But how many thousands, if not millions of men and women have kicked down a door expecting there to be someone there with a machine gun and did it anyway? There's not a dental plan, there's not a college debt in this world that'll make someone do that. That is done solely because of your team. And you want to put your uniform, when you're done with it you want to hang it up in a better locker room than when you got your uniform. You want to make your team better. And for years as an NCO, I thought that if I saw someone hard charge and coming up, I was the king of professional goal tending. I didn't want that young corporal that eclipse me, who wanted... He was smart, he was physically fit, he's a danger. He's going to take your job. He's going to eclipse you. And it took a lot of senior NCOs and a lot of officers to teach me that that's the point of leadership.
The point of leadership is to be eclipsed. Your legacy isn't what you do. Your legacy hinges on what people underneath your leadership do. And if they're not better than you, you are really shitty at what you're doing. Your job is to make the unit and the army better. And that's why this generation as much as it breaks my heart, this generation that doesn't make their bed and can't get their sideburns even is the greatest generation of American fighting ever. They're better than we were. They're better than my granddad. They're better than any because that's our army. Our army is always eclipsing the previous generation. And that's leadership. That's what we're supposed to be. That's what we're supposed to do. It takes time to figure that out, but when you do it's impossible not to go all in.
Yeah, sometimes leaders will plant a seed and it doesn't really grow to fruit until, in my case, 15, 20 years later. The first book I wrote about the war was right after the battle. I'm still feeling it, still had the sunburn and still was itching for what I felt was my normalcy. I think I thought I missed war. I thought I missed the kinetic nature war. I didn't realize that I really missed my sense of validation. I missed my purpose. And we have to navigate that as veterans, what our purpose is, what our greatness is. And honestly, our service really starts at home. It's not what we do in uniform. It prepares us to come home and serve when we get home. But those leaders for me, it was critical... When someone's riding you really hard, depending on how you're raised and how you dealt with those leaders in your life, there's a tendency... And I see this a lot with the young officers today, young NCOs, they don't want to make a mistake.
Mistakes are the worst thing in the world. You did something wrong, you need correction. And we're fearful of making a mistake. When someone is criticizing a mistake, it's important that we don't internalize that as being anything other than you are expected to be better. When you're in a battle with a opposing enemy and no one's shooting at you, that means no one's afraid of you. You want to be shot at because you're a threat. You do your job well and you need to be eliminated because you're so good at what you do. No one is criticizing you unless there's greatness in you. If there's no expectation that you can be better... I've dealt with those soldiers. I fired a lot of them. If all you can do is make coffee, go make coffee. You better make good coffee but that's all you're good for, run the coffee machine and find my boots.
But if you're in a position that much is expected of you, you are going to be held to a high standard. And those leaders that are criticizing you are basically saying, that's not what I expected. I need more. And you might not get that attaboy, you might not get the Army Achievement medal or a slap on the back or a certificate of achievement. But you know that you are your own validator. You're not doing this for shares, you're not doing this for likes, you're not doing this for, I'm so proud of you. You're doing this because you know that there's greatness in you, you demand to be better. And the greatest honor I've ever had in my life is knowing I was needed on the battlefield. I needed to know that I had a purpose and that I was needed in that fight. And the hardest thing for me to come to terms with is how do I love my army when it treats me like garbage?
How do I love my chain of command when they're not fair and they're not good to me? Those are the toughest times in your... And for me as a younger guy, that was the hardest thing to come to terms with. Once you come to terms with that, you get in the civilian world, there ain't nothing you can't do. You go to a job interview and there's all these kids that are freaking out and you're like, dude, there's no RPG sizzling. No katyusha is going to hit us from the ceiling. We're good to go here. This is a job interview, bring it on. What is there out there for me to do? I can tackle anything you put in front of me because I know who I am. And self-identity is found through adversity and testing yourself and realizing you have a purpose in this world.
We can eliminate veteran suicide by reminding individuals of who they are. If you killed yourself when you were stacking on a house, I wouldn't even know what to say. There's no way on earth a soldier would take their own life when they're needed, because you know are as important as any other person on that stack. I need you and I need your gun in this fight. We have forgotten to remind people of what their purpose is, and how loved they are, and how special, and how great they are. They have to be reminded of their oath, reminded of what their true north is. And it took me 15 years to figure that out.
Well, I didn't think we were going to get a combat instruments badge, let alone a combat patch. It was sustainment operations. The mission accomplished banner was on the carrier. We knew the tempo was going to... But it was peacekeeping force in Germany. We all wanted Afghanistan. We all wanted to avenge 9/11. Iraq kind of came out of nowhere. We were training for it but we were always training for it. Armor, Bradleys, that's what we do. This wasn't something we expected to be... We were ready for it but no one was expecting to have a big set play piece. But we learned that the Bradley fighting vehicle and the tank in an urban fight are game changers. They're game changers. And the way that these tasks force were designed to be engineers, tankers, infantry, the guys that hated each other in garrison, the ones that could not get along became best friends because nothing is more devastating.
That synergy, that balance between I defend you and your armored asset, you defend me, you need me, I need you. And together nothing could stand in front of us. We got baptized by fire pretty quick. And through our leadership and our training, we had a crescendo to violence which was so important because if you get thrown into something that you can't handle right off the bat, and we saw it with so many units, you have no way to learn lessons. You have no way to adapt. But because Fallujah happened at the end, the [inaudible 00:17:38] was in there. We had Charlie company went to Mosul. There was all these small, larger, moderate, medium, close quarter battles that we could learn from. And that ultimately made us devastating towards the end.
I fundamentally didn't understand as an infantry man what I was expected to do in a counterinsurgency. We like to portray us in and a lot of our heavy thinkers in our military on counterinsurgency tactics. But that was really designed in the Vietnam War. The idea that the population has to trust you, you have to conduct yourself at a higher standard. You're essentially trading your lives for the trust of the people. They have to know that you're there to make their lives better. And that the women and children in a town that doesn't worship the same God or speak the same language is as important to you as your own hometown or your own neighborhood. And that takes a lot of patience and it takes a lot of growing. And I was not really wired for that and I didn't really understand it. But Fallujah was the Old Testament fight. Women and children were long gone.
A city the size of Tampa Bay, Florida. Every beheading video we saw in Iraq up to that point that took place through Zarqawi. That schism that was happening in Al Qaeda where they were starting sectarian violence with the [inaudible 00:19:51] and the radical Wahhabis and the insurgents that were coming from all over the world, Fallujah was their headquarters. And so honestly, it's a much easier fight to prepare for because you don't have to worry about civilians on the battlefield. You don't have to worry about children and women making decisions. Is gun threat takeout? That's a much easier way to conduct combat operations for combat armed soldiers and Marines than it is, can I shoot back? The hardest thing to do or to teach young people to do is to hold that weapon at the high ready when they're getting popped because there's too many civilians on the…
I've taken more pride of I've seen my soldiers restrain from engaging, knowing full well that lives would be lost in the exchange than anything I've seen my soldiers do. My soldiers were really incredible and I'm very proud of them. But those were the moments where I thought to myself, these guys get it. And we're trying to win a war. There was a lot of confusion in Iraq at what are we fighting? Who are we fighting? Why are we here? The intelligence is garbage. This a war of choice. Everyone's divided on Iraq, but at the end of the day, can you win this war? Is it possible to win this thing? And if you are going to win an insurgency, it has to be done with trust and fidelity of the people. And there were times that that was tough to get through my head.
And I had leaders like Sean Sims, and Peter Smith, and Steven Falkenberg, and Ed Iowan, Peter Newell, and Darren Bond that were able to break that through my skull. That this is not just about winning the year or winning the month, it's about winning the war. And what you do will save the lives of the men who replace you in the next year. And what you do is going to save the lives of other Americans coming here two years from now. Your conduct is going to attrite the enemy, earn the respect of the locals and save American lives down the road. That's a heavy responsibility but that's how you win.
Yeah, it was... So my birthday's the same day as the Marine Corps birthday. And I walked into a Marine Corps station and I wanted to join the Marines. And they were like, when's your birthday? And I told them. And Gunnery Sergeant asked me, was I worthy of having a birthday the same day as the Marine Corps? I thought this was like a confidence challenge. I went to college. I'm like, absolutely, Gunnery Sergeant, I'm worthy of having a birthday the same day as your beloved Corp. And he kicked my ass out of his station and said, no one's worthy. And so I joined the army as an infantry man that day. But ended up in a fight with the Marine Corps which was one of the most special time. As a generation to be all together fighting the same thing was really life changing. We were in Fallujah eight to 10 bad guys, which is the report every time you're chasing down anyone's always eight to 10.
It's never 10, rarely eight, going through a bunch of houses. We locked them in. At that point Iraq, finding the enemy alive was such a rare thing. The enemy would disappear, IED you never got them. You would just fight so hard to fix the enemy. Find them, they can't move, now take them out, that's the key. And once we walked into a house, Chris Oley and Warren Misa, first two in, they had put basically a stairwell with a jersey barrier. They'd set up a bunker and they had multiple belt fed machine guns, houses rigged to blow. And we got trapped in it. And our machine guns shooting in, their machine guns shooting out. We got a crossfire, the walls are starting to chip away and rounds are just everywhere. I'm on one side of the building and my platoon's on the other.
If I don't make a decision, someone's going to make a decision, someone's going to get killed, someone's going to get hurt. And this is the life of service is your number gets called sometimes, sometimes you volunteer, sometimes you get volunteered. And the goal was just to reconsolidate. And so I put down fire, we Australian peeled out. And then I envisioned in my head this is what I've been trained for. This is what I've been doing my whole life. This is my moment to just do what... I expect my guys to do this. And that machine gun that I exchanged for my weapon ran away. I lost it, I went blank on ammo. And evidently I'm not the best saw gunner because I didn't hit them. I got their heads down, but I didn't touch them. And that feeling of what to do now, what do you do? I'm trying to feed a magazine in, not the best. Do I have the ability to outthink, out-maneuver.
I just got out of there. And feeling the heat of the rounds tracking was very demoralizing. But then seeing the fact that the guys in the street were still being shot at from all areas of that house. I'm thinking now if someone gets hurt, someone gets killed, what was the point of that exercise? We'd be better off staying inside and just taking pop shots where we could than being open in the street getting tagged. So I felt really embarrassed. I felt dishonored. I felt that my guys were looking at other leaders for direction and I wasn't going to put them back in it. I wasn't going to take my guys and say, all right, one, two, three, four, five, I'll be in the back, I'll be in the middle. We're going back in this thing. This was mine. I started it and I stirred the nest and I'm going to... And I figured there's two of them. I figured I was good for two.
So I just went in there to see if I couldn't get those two. It just turned out there was more. And my math is not the best. And so in those situations you just go until your luck runs out. And my luck didn't run out and I got to leave that house. There was a reporter there, he videotaped the whole thing. And over time the story became almost far, there was a lot of exaggeration. It was a Marine Corps effort. The story of nine guys, one guy versus 10, one guy versus whatever. It just had a life under its own. And so when I got out of it kind of devolved into a hand to hand thing and it was pretty dramatic. And my chain of command had been killed. Days later, I lost my company commander, my XO, my sergeant major, a scout, JC Madison.
And so we had attrition, but there was this videotape out there. This reporter, Michael Ware from Time Magazine had a story and a tape and all these rumors. And it was like, you're going to get the Distinguished Service Cross, which is incredible. You're going to get the Medal of Honor which is unimaginable, but it just didn't happen for 15 years. It never happened. So you figured, well, it just didn't happen. My award is I'm alive and I'm going to live a great life and I'm going to be super happy and I'm the same person. I don't need that validation. I don't need that anything. But then you start to think, well, maybe the story isn't true. Maybe this dude's making shit up. Maybe he's saying one thing, the army is saying another thing because the Medal of Honor, they never interview you for the Medal of Honor. They don't care what your story is.
You could say, hey, by the way, there were 30 guys in the basement. It's what is witnessed. In this citation it says four and one seriously wounded. I assure you that man seriously wounded is no longer on this earth. But no one witnessed it. No one saw my rounds kill that man. So because no one saw it, we just know he's wounded. So it's only what other people see. And let's be honest, what I thought I saw, what I thought I went through, there's a videotape now and there's a documentary and I'm watching that and I'm like, I shot that six times. No, you shot him three times. I could have sworn that I'm telling you, I shot more... That was a whole magazine. I thought it was only like two rounds. Your brain is going to process things but there's a tape.
And so it's like what's on the tape? I'd like to know. You know what I mean? I don't know what's going to happen. And then the army out of the blue calls you up and states that President Obama and Secretary Carter went through all these old awards and started upgrading them. And out of the blue, you're going to be the next in the shoot. And it's just at that point you kind of moved on with your life. You're not army guy anymore. You're a different person. Nobody knew, I was working with people. I remember the day that it was announced a coworker came up to me and said, some guy with your name is getting the Medal of Honor. And I was like, wow. There was no... They didn't know the book was the book but they don't see your face. They don't know any of those stories. And so I kind of was loving that.
I was loving that I had a new life and a new identity. And then they put you out there and now you're a professional veteran for the rest of your life. And it's not always wanted. You know what I mean? When you're 23, that attention must be the coolest thing in the world. You're John Basilone, you're hanging out, you're going to clubs, you're doing whatever. Everyone's buying you a beer. When you go to bed at nine o'clock and you've got a payroll, you're not exactly looking for that. You're just kind of the wars back there. And so this book, Remember the Ramrods is just how I realized that I gave up on that life. And by giving up on that life, I put all those men in a time capsule and I wasn't what I promised them I'd be. And I moved on. And we need each other. We don't miss the war, we miss the relationships, we miss the people. And this award allowed me to get my people back and it changed my life for the better.
Yeah, look, I'm the only living recipient from the Iraq war and that's the weirdest thing. There're four million people that serve, that doesn't make any sense. There's a 20 some odd from Afghanistan, all deserving, they're all wonderful men. But it's just weird to be the only guy from Iraq. And it happens to be the most unpopular device of war since Vietnam. So now you're like a mascot for the bad war. No one really wants to hear it. And now everywhere you go, you're just pulling scabs and ripping band-aids off wounds that people might not want to revisit. When you are against everything the army stands for, team, team, team over you, selfless you're now on this pedestal with this light. And now it comes down to, well, why isn't my bullet... My boy died. You'll be in a room and everyone speaks of you in the past tense.
It's what you did 20 years ago which is the most important thing. And I think about Chuck Yeager who dies at 99 and well, he broke the sound barrier. At 24, he broke the sound barrier. The man lived an incredible life, but we focused on when he was 24. But I'm in a room and they announce the Gold Star Families who gave us their babies, their sons and daughters. They're dead for us and they get a spattering of applause. And then Medal of Honor guy stands up and the room, the band plays and the confetti, this is, oh my god, it's a medal. We have 60 of them alive. This is such an honor and such a great... Like whoa, we've got our priorities completely screwed up. The Gold Star Family is the most important asset we have in our culture. That is the most important asset in our culture.
America is not America without that sacrifice of those family members who still love this country with every excuse to turn on it. Every excuse to say, you took everything from me, my son's future for your ability to come home. And why we put the attention on people and so naturally you're expecting the uncomfortable, awkward conversation of my son loved America as much as you did. My son trained as hard as you did. My son was every bit if not better than you were. Why you? Why not him? And you just look at them and say, you're right. I have nothing to say, but you're right. And I'm devastated. I'm devastated to be in this position. So take the award and hold it because I've never seen one. I don't know what else to do with it. The less I wear it, the better it feels.
And let's just talk about your son. Let's make tonight about your son. Let's introduce your son to all of these strangers. So they say his name outside of Memorial Day because... We're getting ready to eat Turkey and have a Thanksgiving holiday in November. But when you really think about, it's Memorial Day that we should be thankful. Memorial Day is the day we should be playing football and eating stuffing, because that's the day that we could say that we still have people willing to do this with all of the crazy, all of the nutty politics and division in this country.
Americans are still willing to say, if there's a threat I'll do it for you. You're against the war? Go have a cocktail and take a nap, I got this. I will be uncomfortable so you can stay comfortable. There's nothing more beautiful in this world than a person willing to say, I heard a noise, I'm going to check it out. You go ahead and have a hot toddy, everything's going to be all right. That's a beautiful thing. And those men and women did it. And we've got to acknowledge and honor that sacrifice every day.
I used to think someone's willingness to be there with you is really all I need. I feel like I'm at a Marvel Avenger if I got four guys with me. You give me six, I'm even bigger than that. You give me 20 to 30, I can't be stopped. I'll cure cancer and COVID with 30 guys, I can do anything. The power that you feel with having people from all aspects of America is one of the greatest feelings in the world. For someone to say, if you're going, I'm going with you. We talk about peer pressure when you're 13 it makes you smoke a cigarette. Peer pressure makes you do dumb things. Peer pressure makes you kick down doors. Peer pressure makes you clear roads with IEDs. It depends on who your peers are and if they're quality people you're going to do quality things. The odd man is the one that doesn't do it because everyone is focused on each other.
And Veterans Day is a day that people can be reminded that whether or not someone found a bad guy behind a door, they were willing to do it. And my life, all my wisdom comes from the Vietnam generation. I don't have to worry about a single thing because I just look at that generation. They have all the answers, they've been through it all. And they didn't necessarily get the love and admiration that we did, but they protected us from a lot of criticism because they love us. But a Vietnam vet told me, I'm going around the country and people are like, thank you, that I don't know what to say. Thank you for your service. And what am I, college didn't work out. I always knew I could do this. What do you say to someone who thanks you for doing something you felt obligated to do for your country? And this Vietnam vet told me, look them in the eye and tell them you're worth it.
That completely has changed my life. And when you go to Los Angeles or you go to New York, and there are people that this isn't a family business service. They had an uncle, they know a cousin, there's a neighbor that serves, but not everyone does it. But they know that service is worthy of respect. And they say, thank you for your service. And you look them back and you say you're worth it. All of it boils down to why we do what we do because America is worthy of it. It doesn't matter who runs the White House, how many justices are on the bench, what party controls Congress. America is worth it and Americans are worth it. And Veterans Day represents every single man and woman. Regardless of all the reasons why we're in different tribes, we're one tribe and we're the biggest and strongest tribe. And that's veterans willing to say, I do this because of you and it's my pleasure. It's perfect. And of all the things I could belong to, it's the greatest clubhouse to be part of this generation at war wearing that title of being a veteran.