RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Medal of Honor is America's highest award for valor in combat. And today it will be given to the first living veteran of the Iraq War. Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia turned 29 the day his heroic act initially earned him a Silver Star back in 2004. As NPR's David Welna reports, Bellavia's comrades in arms joined him yesterday at the Pentagon to recall his bravery.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: One of those at now-retired Sergeant Bellavia's side at the Pentagon was his former company commander, Colonel Doug Walter. It was Walter who pressed for Bellavia's Silver Star to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
DOUG WALTER: I've been in the Army a long time, and I can say David Bellavia is one of those guys that exemplifies selfless service and sacrifice. And it's an honor to be here with him today.
COLIN FITTS: I'm in Sergeant First Class Fitts, retired, and I just want to tell y'all that were it not for David Bellavia, I wouldn't be sitting here today.
WELNA: Colin Fitts had already survived being shot three different times earlier that year when he and his fellow troops were ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah.
FITTS: We couldn't get out, couldn't do anything. We were stuck there. And I had to ask David to help me out, and he did that. He put himself in the line of that fire and laid down a base of fire; overwhelmed the enemy long enough for me to get myself and the members of my squad out.
WELNA: The praise came not only from squad leader Bellavia's former fighting mates.
MICHAEL WARE: I also had the privilege to actually witness a Medal of Honor moment, to see a man perform such an act of valor that it was humbling to behold.
WELNA: That's Australian journalist Michael Ware. He was embedded with the squad when Bellavia shot his way into a house with his troops pinned down outside.
WARE: I was there when he made that decision, took it upon himself. I watched him summon whatever emotion it was that drove him to go back in there. It was my privilege to go in there with him. In fact, I filmed it.
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WARE: You can hear on the footage, David going through the house. There were bullets whipping through the walls. David went in by himself and, in the dark, had to hunt them down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's right.
WARE: They'd laid traps for him all through the house.
WELNA: Bellavia said he was only making sure all were accounted for.
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DAVID BELLAVIA: We had to get a head count. And when you've got a dark house, you've got to make sure you've brought all your guys out.
WARE: David is honestly being humble here.
WELNA: Again, Michael Ware.
WARE: We knew those guys were in there. We'd been tracking them all night. We'd been following evidence of them through house after house. David certainly knew there wasn't just two guys under the stairs. What he did, going back into that nightmare, saved all those men's lives.
WELNA: Bellavia killed four insurgents. What drove him, he said, was love for his fellow troops.
BELLAVIA: You will do anything for those guys, and those guys will do anything for you. And it's a beautiful experience.
WELNA: Bellavia calls his Medal of Honor his new unit insignia.
BELLAVIA: I have a tremendous amount of reverence for the award itself. But you know, the Iraq War veteran has served and surpassed, at times, the highest standards of American warrior tradition amongst any generation. We have nothing to apologize for. We serve our country. We do what our leaders tell us to do. It's - you know, the narrative on the Iraq War has long been written. I'm not here to change anyone's mind.
WELNA: And he's grateful to have survived that war.
BELLAVIA: Honestly, I always considered my award just being able to come home.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.