FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Medal of Honor recipient former Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia spoke at the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course graduation Dec. 17.

In 2004 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when his platoon came under fire while clearing a building in Fallujah, Bellavia personally engaged in a fight with five insurgents, killing four and wounding a fifth to save the lives of the Soldiers in his platoon.

For his actions, Bellavia received the Silver Star, and the Silver Star was upgraded in June 2019 to the Medal of Honor, making Bellavia the seventh recipient of the medal for actions taken during OIF and the only living OIF recipient.

Bellavia enlisted in the Army as an Infantryman in 1999.

"I've always wanted to be a professional athlete, and I didn't have the gifts to do it," Bellavia said during a press conference. "But the Army allowed me to go pro. I became a professional in the United States Army, and it's one of the greatest opportunities I ever had. It's one of the greatest honors I ever had."

He said he was inspired to join the Army because of a Family history of military service, including that of his parents' and that of his grandfather, a 99-year-old WWII veteran who served in Normandy.

"He would tell me just the most incredible stories at a young age, probably inappropriately," Bellavia said of his grandfather. "But I just had this romance about guys from different walks of life, all together, enduring the weather, enduring the enemy. And there was just such a beauty about doing something as a team.

"It's a beautiful gift to have, to be able to endure something with people and be able to say, 'I'm alive because of what you did for me,'" he continued. "I'm here because 19-year-old SAW gunners risked their lives to get me out of a house fight."

And it is because of teamwork that Bellavia does not believe the Medal of Honor belongs to him solely. Rather it belongs to the Soldiers he served with in his unit and, in a larger sense, to all OIF veterans. At the conclusion of the press conference he let the reporters hold and examine the medal.

"Iraq veterans in particular, we don't have a whole lot to look back at that conflict," he said. "I like to take it off as much as I can and give it to people so they can hold it and see it because, I don't consider it mine, I consider it like I'm a custodian. Like the Stanley Cup, everyone gets a day with it. That's how it is with my unit. We're really tight, we really care about each other, and we did this all together."

Bellavia left the Army in 2005 and founded a veteran advocacy organization. He returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter in 2006 and 2008. He wrote a book in 2007, "House to House," about his experiences in Iraq. He currently lives in western New York.

When he received the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony in June, he invited the Soldiers he served with on stage with him.

He was invited back to Fort Benning, where he was a guest speaker at both the graduations for Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, at the National Infantry Museum in the morning and for IBOLC at the Maneuver Center of Excellence headquarters building in the afternoon.

Second Lt. Zachary Hoiles was the distinguished honor graduate at the IBOLC graduation.

"His words were super moving," said Hoiles. "Something that's really special to us is when you get a speech from somebody within the organization that focuses on the people that came before you and that -- the shoes that you're filling in, really. I think that moves a lot of Soldiers and a lot of officers, especially when you're taking your first steps into this role."

According to Bellavia, Fort Benning and the Infantry taught him his "true north."

"I have not been around these parts of Fort Benning, Georgia since I had a really bad haircut, and I was a basic trainee," he said. "It changed my life. This place is really holy to me, and it stands for a whole lot."

To learn more about retired Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia, visit www.army.mil/medalofhonor/bellavia.