‘Way to go, man’ – Bellavia says he’s humbled to receive nation’s highest honor
Bellavia wants to highlight service of Iraq War vets
CHEEKTOWAGA – When Bill Bellavia talked with his son, David, the father would praise him for his service in the Army and other accomplishments.
“Way to go, man,” Bellavia would tell his son.
Dr. Bellavia, a Medina dentist, was the only one who used that phrase with David, until October when the younger Bellavia was on the phone with President Donald Trump. The president told Bellavia he would be receiving the Medal of Honor.
“‘Good job, David. Way to go, man.’ That’s what the president said and I haven’t heard anyone say that to me but my father and it just brought me right back down to Earth,” Bellavia shared with reporters on Tuesday.
On Monday, the White House announced the medal would be awarded on June 25. Monday was the 75th birthday of Bill Bellavia, David’s father. Bill was a well-known dentist who wrote many op-eds for the local newspapers. He died on Dec. 6, 2017 after a long fight with cancer. David is the youngest of four sons.
“It was pretty crazy that the White House announcement came on his birthday, but my dad was my hero. I loved him,” David Bellavia said.
His father was a big Buffalo Bills fan and would send his son long letters, detailing every play in a Bills game. It was as if the father and son were watching the game together, and brought some normalcy to the stress of being in a war zone.
Bellavia said he joined the Army after a home invasion at his parents’ home. Bellavia didn’t like feeling like a victim.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman in 1999 and worked about two years in recruiting for the Army while his infant son received medical care in Syarcuse. Bellavia on Tuesday said he appreciated that compassion from the Army.
“I’m forever grateful to the United States Army,” Bellavia told reporters during a news conference at the Army Recruiting Station in Cheektowaga. “They gave my life purpose and direction. They gave my life meaning and value. I’m a better human being because of my service and I think most of the people I served with can tell you the same thing. I encourage any man or woman that wants to become an individual in their community to serve the United States military.”
In 2001, Bellavia had a decision to make. He could change his military occupational specialty, submit a hardship discharge, or remain as an infantryman. He chose to stay in the infantry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bellavia’s unit in 2003 deployed to Kosovo for nine months and then was sent directly to Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. From February 2004 to February 2005, Bellavia and the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, were stationed in the Diyala Province along the Iranian border. His task force took part in the battles for Najaf, Mosul, Baqubah, Muqdadiyah and Fallujah.
He is being honored for actions on his 29thbirthday, when he and his platoon were clearing buildings in Fallujah. The first nine buildings were unoccupied. The 10thhad insurgents inside and they were determined to kill the American soldiers.
Bellavia engaged the attackers, providing cover for his soldiers to get outside. He then re-entered the house and killed four insurgents and seriously wounded another.
His actions were described by Michael Ware, a Time correspondent. Bellavia said Ware is the “Ernie Pyle” of this generation of war correspondents. That reporting likely is a big factor Bellavia is getting the Medal of Honor.
Bellavia said many soldiers are deserving of the Medal of Honor. He listed five from his unit – commanding officer Ed Iwan, company commander Sean Sims, task force sergeant major Steven Faulkenburg, scout J.C. Matteson and staff sergeant Scott Lawson. All were heroic, saving men in the face of extreme danger. Iwan, Sims, Falkenburg and Matteson were killed in Iraq. Lawson died on March 13, 2019.
“I’m trying to bring those families to Washington so we can all share in this together,” Bellavia said about those men in his unit.
He recalled a team leader who saved a platoon from entering a building with an IED, which would have killed the platoon.
“I think of young men who pull their buddies out of doorways,” Bellavia said. “We literally live minute to minute in a firefight and anything can change. You don’t have time to immediately keep a scorecard on who’s doing what and who’s where in a firefight. It’s about survivability, it’s about coming home and achieving mission success.”
Ware, the journalist, was with Bellavia in the house on Nov. 10, 2004. Bellavia single-handedly saved an entire squad, risking his life while under heavy fire inside a house.
“His actions stand as a testament to those who put everything on the line as they do the grim work required to keep each other safe and alive on the battlefield,” the Department of Defense states in its summary of why Bellavia is being awarded the nation’s highest honor.
Bellavia was awarded the Silver Star in 2005 and was nominated for the Medal of Honor more than a decade ago. He didn’t get a phone call from Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the final approval for the honor.
In August he was told he would be getting an important phone call from a top leader in the Department of Defense. Bellavia didn’t know why or who the official was. Two months later, it was President Trump, the commander in chief, on the phone.
Bellavia said his life has changed and he will advocate for veterans and promote the military as a desired option for young men and women.
The news of the award was reported on Friday. It’s been a whirlwind since then for Bellavia, who works as a talk show host in Buffalo for WBEN.
“I never expected this much love and support and kindness,” Bellavia told reporters. “It really has meant a lot.”
He noted many veterans, especially those from the Vietnam War era, were treated poorly by the public and felt they needed to be quiet about their service. Bellavia said their valor is honorable, and all veterans should feel pride.
“It seems we have learned some of those lessons,” Bellavia said. “I just wish that more Vietnam veterans, Korean War, World War II, everyone, guys at VA hospitals could feel half of the love that Western New York has given to me.”
‘All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve my country. I happen to think veterans make the best neighbors you can have. I think we make great employees. I think we make great teachers. I think we make great friends.’
He wants to continue to highlight the service of all veterans, and the ultimate sacrifice of Gold Star families.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve my country,” he said. “I happen to think veterans make the best neighbors you can have. I think we make great employees. I think we make great teachers. I think we make great friends.”
Bellavia joined the Army when he was 23. He was older than most of the soldiers. He tried to be a big brother to many of them, to look out for the soldiers in his unit who were across the world from the families.
“If there’s anything that can come out of this hopefully young people in Western New York will see their country as more worthy than anything else in their life,” he said. “We are a very special institution, the United States Army. I encourage young people to look at that as an opportunity to better themselves but more importantly better their communities and their country.”
Bellavia said he was fortunate to grow up in Lyndonville. He played on the sports teams and performed in the school musicals. He was Jack in the show, Into the Woods.
“In Lyndonville I was blessed,” he told the reporters on Tuesday. “In a small high school you can be on a sports team, you can be in a play and you can play an instrument. In some big high schools you can’t do that. You have to choose. You’re either a sports guys, a music guy or you’re in the science club. In Lyndonville because we were so small we could all do the same thing. I just loved being on teams. I loved even losing. I loved being a part of a culture where we all shared something together. Win or lose we were part of something. I was really enamored by that whole thing. I found those guys in college. I found those guys in the Army. I’m really motivated by that dynamic in a group. We share things. We experience things. I love that camaraderie.”