WASHINGTON -- One by one, 12 members of Third Platoon made their way to the podium in the White House's East Room on Tuesday afternoon, to join the Soldier who repeatedly risked his life on a fall night in Fallujah 15 years ago.
Each platoon member, including former squad leader retired Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts and former platoon leader Maj. Joaquin Meno, shook hands with President Trump and joined former Staff Sgt. David Bellavia after he accepted the Medal of Honor, as several more members of the 1st Infantry Division followed.
"It means a lot to me and it means a lot more so as a unit," Meno said. "(Bellavia) and the guys displayed so much professionalism and tenacity that everything complemented each other…the Soldiers on the ground, the team leaders, and the platoon sergeant. It really created a great brotherhood amongst us."
The first living recipient to earn the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Iraq War, Bellavia was praised by Trump for placing his unit members' lives before his own. And Bellavia lauded the efforts of his fellow platoon members who each contributed to the fight that autumn night and during the vicious battles that followed.
"I served with some of the greatest men I've ever met in my entire life," Bellavia said after the ceremony.
The night of Nov. 10, 2004, during the onset of the Second Battle of Fallujah, Bellavia and his unit had been tasked to clear 12 houses of insurgents in an abandoned section of the Iraqi city. When they reached the 10th house, insurgents hiding behind barricades ambushed Bellavia's men. Several men suffered injuries to their faces as enemy rounds ripped through the walls as bricks and plaster flew through the air.
Without hesitation, Bellavia charged toward the enemy rounds, spraying bullets at the insurgents, allowing his wounded teammates to evacuate the house.
"The wall was ripped to shreds. David knew they had to get out," Trump said. "He just took over. He leapt into the torrent of bullets without even thinking. He provided suppressive fire, while his men evacuated, rescuing his entire squad at the risk of his own life. Only when his men were all out did David exit the building."
Bellavia wasn't done as the staff sergeant once again placed himself in harm's way. As insurgents from the rooftop continued firing, a Bradley fighting vehicle could only force the enemy back into the house.
The New York native decided then to summon his courage and re-enter the house to drive out the enemies to his waiting gunners. He first cut down an insurgent who had a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and then he killed two more assailants hiding in the house.
Bellavia defeated a fourth after engaging in hand-to-hand combat; eventually stabbing the insurgent in the neck. Finally, he mortally wounded a fifth attacker, who fell from the rooftop and attacked him on the balcony.
"Knowing that he would face almost certain death, David decided to go inside the house and make sure not a single terrorist escaped alive," Trump said.
After placing the Medal on Bellavia's shoulders, President Trump honored the fallen members of the unit. Sgt. Maj. Steven Faulkenburg, the task's force's father figure, died from small arms fire. Bellavia's company commander, Capt. Sean Sims and 1st Lt. Ed Iwan would succumb to enemy fire in the days after the Nov. 10 battle. Late platoon members Sgt. J.C. Matteson and Sgt. Scott Lawson, who was in the house when Bellavia re-entered, also received recognition.
"Our entire nation expresses our love, loyalty and everlasting gratitude," Trump said to the families of the late Soldiers who sat in attendance.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Gustavo Reina, who recruited Bellavia into the Army, said he saw Bellavia's potential as a leader when he joined the service in 1999.
"I was incredibly proud of his actions because he helped save American lives," Reina said. "He became the man that he knew and I knew he could become."
Bellavia served as a recruiter alongside Reina at the Buffalo recruiting station during a special duty assignment.
Reina praised Bellavia for his continued work with veterans. After leaving the Army, Bellavia founded Vets for Freedom, a political advocacy group that consists of former Iraq and Afghan war veterans.
"I want to thank my Army for giving me purpose and meaning and direction," said Bellavia to the media following the ceremony. "It's an absolute honor to serve in the U.S. military and serve with those fine men that you saw on that stage today."