Tag Archives: Army Commendation Medal

This Month in NCO History: Nov. 10, 2004 — Into the hot zone at the Second Battle of Fallujah

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia was bleary eyed. He had been awake nearly 48 hours, denied sleep by a cacophony of sporadic gunfire aimed at him and his platoon as they made their way through the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. He had already seen his sergeant major, company commander and executive officer cut down by enemy fire, forcing him to assume command of A Company, Task Force 2-2, 1st Infantry Division.

Now he was feet away from the front door of a house along an abandoned block in the city of 350,000. His Soldiers had searched nine houses along the street looking for six to eight insurgents that intelligence reports suggested were in the area. It was Nov. 10, 2004, Bellavia’s 29th birthday. What he unwrapped upon opening the doors to that 10th house would etch his name into history as a recipient of the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest decoration for valor in combat.

“I have had better birthdays, for sure,” Bellavia told the Military Channel in 2009.

Bellavia’s men were mired in the opening stages of the Second Battle of Fallujah. Also known as Operation Phantom Fury, the operation was a joint effort by American, Iraqi and British forces to drive out the Iraqi insurgency in the city. It began Nov. 7, 2004, and ended more than six weeks later on Dec. 23. The effort was led by the U.S. Marine Corps and was the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war.

The impetus for the battle began in March when four American private military contractors from Blackwater USA were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. U.S. Marine forces launched Operation Vigilant Resolve to take the city back from insurgents. The operation ended in late April with the formation of the Fallujah Brigade, a unit composed of Iraqis, which was charged with keeping insurgents out of the city. But insurgent strength did not wane. On Sept. 24, 2004, a senior U.S. official told ABC News that catching Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was said to be operating in the city, was “the highest priority.”

The insurgents holding Fallujah were formidable. They had interpreters, combat cameramen and were well-trained. But Bellavia’s unit was battle-hardened, too. By the time they arrived on the city’s outskirts, the 1st ID had been in Iraq for 10 months and had been involved in every major battle in the war up to that point. The pair of hard-nosed contingents clashed immediately when the door of that 10th house opened.

“They just opened up on us with belt-fed machine guns,” Bellavia said.

The insurgents were entrenched in a makeshift pillbox under a set of stairs. Bellavia seethed when he heard the anguished screams of his fellow Soldiers as they were wounded.

“I wanted that revenge. I wanted to be that leader that I promised I would be,” he said. “A light switch went off.”

According to his Silver Star citation, Bellavia, armed with an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon gun, entered the room where the insurgents were holed up and sprayed it with gunfire, forcing the enemy to take cover and allowing the squad to move into the street. While the Americans took fire from various vantage points inside the house, Bellavia called in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to shell the houses. During a lull in the fire, Bellavia approached the house again and observed an insurgent loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Bellavia promptly shot him and charged into the house. A second insurgent fired at him, and Bellavia wounded him in the shoulder. When he entered a bedroom, the wounded insurgent followed, forcing Bellavia to shoot him. When another insurgent began firing from a floor above, Bellavia returned fire and killed him. A fourth insurgent then emerged from a closet in the bedroom, yelling and firing his weapon as he leaped over a bed trying to reach Bellavia. The insurgent tripped and Bellavia wounded him. Bellavia chased the insurgent as he ran upstairs. He followed the wounded insurgent’s bloody footprints to a room on the landing and threw in a fragmentation grenade. Upon entering the room, Bellavia discovered it was filled with propane tanks and plastic explosives. He did not fire his weapon for fear of setting off an explosion and instead engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the insurgent, fatally stabbing him in the neck.

At this point, five members of the platoon entered the house and took control of the first floor. Before they could go room by room clearing the structure, however, they were ordered to move out of the area because close air support had been called in by a nearby unit.

Years later, Bellavia recalled his actions as reactionary.

“It was survivability,” he said. “This is what we were destined to do. In the moment that’s very much rational.”

Bellavia left the service after six years in 2005 as a staff sergeant. He co-founded Vets for Freedom and served as vice chairman. He attended the 2006 State of the Union address as an honored guest. He currently is president of EMPact America, an American energy resiliency organization based in Elma, New York. He is married and has three children.

In 2007, he published a memoir, House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, co-written with John R. Bruning. In September 2010, the book was selected as one of the top five best Iraq War memoirs by journalist Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco). In 2012, Bellavia signed an agreement with 2012 Oscar-winning producer Rich Middlemas to make his memoir into a major motion picture. Along with the Silver Star, Bellavia also was awarded the Bronze Star, three Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals and the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross. He was also nominated for the Medal of Honor.

Most of the fighting in the Second Battle of Fallujah subsided by Nov. 13. U.S. Marines continued to face isolated resistance from insurgents hidden throughout the city. By Nov. 16, after nine days of fighting, the Marine command described the action as mopping up pockets of resistance. Sporadic fighting continued until Dec. 23. By late January 2005, news reports indicated U.S. combat units were leaving the area, and were assisting the local population in returning to the now heavily-damaged city.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

By Example: Training and repetition pay off when enemy arrives

NCO Journal

This story is part of a periodic NCO Journal feature that takes a closer look at an Army award in an NCO’s career. This month we focus on the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor.

First Sgt. Justin Stewart is currently serving as first sergeant for Bravo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, in Hawaii. But in August 2005, he was a staff sergeant with Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment when his actions earned him the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device.

Stewart’s squadron was part of an effort to “clear, hold, rebuild” in the area of Tal Afar, Iraq. The effort was difficult in Tal Afar, Stewart said, because “there were a lot of foreign fighters — from Syria, Iran, other places were all in there. It was getting pretty ugly.” During a period of several weeks, the Army cleared neighboring areas, chasing the enemy into Tal Afar. Then the effort to clear Tal Afar itself began.

“We started dropping fliers all over the city to say that anybody out on the street was going to be considered a combative,” Stewart said. “So it really took a turn toward a more force-on-force linear conflict, as opposed to the counterinsurgency as we were normally treating it.”

First Sgt. Justin Stewart earned the Army Commendation Medal with "V" device for valor when he was a staff sergeant serving in Iraq in 2005.
First Sgt. Justin Stewart earned the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor when he was a staff sergeant serving in Iraq in 2005.

Stewart’s troop was clearing a block when a tank was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and was disabled. Though recovery efforts began immediately, the tall buildings and high roofs of Tal Afar allowed enemy fighters to swarm to advantageous positions. “[The tank crew] started getting attacked pretty heavily by small-arms fire,” Stewart said. “We were able to see RPG teams starting to maneuver to attack the recovery vehicle, as well as the disabled tank and crew as they were forced to get out and hook up tow winches.

“I’m a fire support specialist (13F) by trade, forward observer,” Stewart said. “I was in a Bradley, and we maneuvered into position to provide direct fire support with the 25-millimeter gun. I was able to engage and destroy two of the RPG teams that maneuvered onto the roofs overhead as they were trying to attack with direct fire. I started calling in indirect fire from the 120-millimeter mortars that were attached to the troop, so we were able to put down indirect fire to basically break up the merge coming down the street from the north. I was able to engage some of the rooftop RPG teams as they were trying to kill the tank and crew recovering it.

“We pulled them out and were able to recover the vehicle. No loss of life, so a successful day. We moved the tank out and continued our mission.”


 How do your actions that day show the best of the U.S. Army NCO Corps?

Just in itself, watching out for Soldier welfare, making sure the mission gets accomplished. Our mission was taking the area and destroying the enemy. Really that’s the uppermost responsibilities in the noncommissioned officer’s mind: accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the Soldiers. So, I guess in that case, it was taking care of the Soldiers in the other vehicle, taking care of the Soldiers in my vehicle, making sure they were able to recover property and life and moving out. And then, we continued to accomplish the mission.

What do you hope your Soldiers and junior NCOs learn from your actions that day?

Repetition and training pay off. We spent so much time every day not letting complacency get to us out at our base. We made sure we were continuing to practice our fire support craft, even though at the time, that deployment, we hadn’t been doing much of it. It was where we stepped off the high-intensity conflict, started more stability support. So you didn’t get to do much indirect fire. But practicing and not letting that complacency kick in, making sure the craft was still honed, that’s what ensured that when the time came, I was still able to call for fire and put down effective rounds and, ultimately, kill bad guys.

Why did you decide to join the Army and why have you continued to serve?

I’ve always wanted to be a Soldier ever since I was a little kid building guns out of Legos. I don’t know if I should blame Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Commando movies, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. As I’ve stayed, my motivation has evolved. As I’ve matured as an adult, so have my goals and my reasons for continuing to serve. What may have started out as just an underlying, ‘I want to be a combat Soldier. It’s fun; it’s cool.’ … as I’ve been shaped, I’m starting to understand the Army Values, what it means to lead and train Soldiers. That’s what motivates me now — the ability to continue to stay in touch, continue to train, and watch these Soldiers develop into leaders themselves.

What role have NCOs played in your development?

From my very first chief, who I still stay in contact with … I can remember meeting him the day I hit the ground at my unit. Unfortunately he got wounded in Iraq after we had parted ways. I was a staff sergeant, and he went on to Korea, then back to Iraq, and ended up getting injured and medically discharged. But I still stay in touch with him. The training from day one from him about how to call for fire, how to properly employ the equipment, I used it that day out there and continue to use it and pass it down to my Soldiers.

What makes a good NCO?

Discipline, accountability and leading from the front.

What advice do you have for junior NCOs?

Never waste time. Leadership starts first thing in the morning. You have to take ownership and accountability of every aspect of training and every bit of time you get, from the moment you start doing PT, until the moment the day ends. Don’t waste time. Be accountable for your Soldiers, be accountable for their training.