The recent announcement that Iraq War veteran David Bellavia will be awarded the Medal of Honor on June 25 is welcome — and long overdue.
The action for which Army Staff Sgt. Bellavia is receiving the award occurred during the second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq in December of 2004, some 14 years ago — and is chronicled in his excellent book “House to House.” The book recounts a story of amazing heroism. Sgt. Bellavia and his platoon were assigned to clear a 12-house area of insurgents. They systematically reached nine houses without incident but, upon entering the 10th house, Sgt. Bellavia and his squad quickly came under heavy fire from jihadis on all three levels of the structure.
Out-gunned, Sgt. Bellavia and his men fled the house and took cover. As the minutes passed Sgt. Bellavia become more and more ashamed that had run from the fight. Unable to face his men, Sgt. Bellavia decided to re-enter the house.
“I decided I would lose my life or my soul,” he said.
Going back in the house alone, Sgt. Bellavia killed five insurgents, one by one, fighting hand-to-hand on floors slippery with blood and in a gloom made more frightening by noxious fumes, smoke and the shouts of the hidden terrorists. After clearing the house Sgt. Bellavia rejoined his squad, which he had likely saved from destruction, along with many other members of his platoon.
Sgt. Bellavia’s commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor for this incredible feat, but after extensive consideration, Sgt. Bellavia was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor, instead.
Not only was Sgt. Bellavia denied the Medal of Honor. No living Iraq War veteran had been awarded the medal. This is utterly inexplicable. Until the Bellavia announcement, Iraq was the only major conflict in American history since the Civil War where this has been the case.
The eight-year-long war in Iraq cost the United States 4,500 dead and 32,000 wounded. Some of the fiercest fighting since Vietnam occurred in Iraq. Yet of the more than 1.5 million American forces who fought, bled and died there, not one living veteran until Sgt. Bellavia, was deemed worthy to receive the Medal of Honor.
By contrast look at Afghanistan, where sporadic combat continues today. Although fewer American troops have served in Afghanistan than Iraq, and although more Iraq veterans have received the Navy, Air Force or Distinguish Service Cross (the military’s second highest award for valor) and the Silver Star (the third highest), 13 living veterans of Afghanistan have been awarded the Medal of Honor while only Sgt. Bellavia has received it for Iraq.
Until 2009 no living veterans of either conflict had received the Medal of Honor, a puzzle that prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to publicly question the process. Soon came announcements awarding the medal to living veterans — but only of Afghanistan. The reasons for the disparity remain unclear, but some speculate that the Bush administration was reluctant to appear to be politically exploiting the veterans of Iraq — an unpopular war — while the Obama administration declined to honor heroes of “Bush’s War.” Nobody knows for sure.
What is clear is that the refusal to honor the Iraq veterans is a serious injustice to the 1.5 million veterans of that war.
This injustice affects not only the veterans of Iraq, it is a disservice to the country. Medal of Honor recipients acquire a unique platform that makes them much in demand by military, patriotic, educational and youth groups that other veterans simply do not have. The younger recipients are particularly effective in reaching young audiences with their message of courage, duty, service and patriotism, a message these young audiences desperately need to hear.
It is not too late to remedy the injustice. Here at the American Veterans Center (AVC) we have had the privilege of getting to know dozens of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan — including most of the 13 Afghanistan recipients and their stories and citations. We believe there are at least 10-12 Iraq veterans who deserve to receive the Medal of Honor. We have also known David Bellavia for almost 15 years and he serves on the AVC advisory board. He has told me that he also believes that upwards of 10 Iraq veterans deserve the medal.
Periodic reviews conducted by the last several presidents have resulted in the Medal of Honor being presented to veterans of World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Iraq.
Once President Trump has a new secretary of Defense, he should direct him or her to conduct a fresh assessment of the valor awards for living veterans, with an eye to upgrading, them where appropriate.
• James C. Roberts is the president of the American Veterans Center.
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