Local soldier's raw memoir details horror of war patrol Chronicle of Iraq tour earning critical acclaim

Local soldier's raw memoir details horror of war patrol Chronicle of Iraq tour earning critical acclaim

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Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia knew he killed the man. He thrust his knife into the neck of the Iraqi insurgent, and the man's blood was oozing onto Bellavia's neck and chest.

That was the fourth man Bellavia had killed inside the castle-like house in central Iraq.

A few minutes later, Bellavia -- who grew up in a devoutly Christian family that taught him that taking a life was evil -- killed a fifth Iraqi in hopes of saving his own life and the lives of his infantry squad.

Bellavia survived that battle, as did his comrades, but this hand-to-hand combat in the 2004 siege of Fallujah changed Bellavia forever.

Bellavia, a Lyndonville native, writes in graphic detail about the man's death in his critically acclaimed book, "House to House, An Epic Memoir of War," published by Simon & Schuster.

"It's not a love letter nor an apology," Bellavia said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "It's an accurate description of war. People say we don't need to hear about it. I think you need to. Don't tell me you don't have the stomach to read what's really happening."

Even war opponents praise the book, but not exactly for the reasons Bellavia wrote it during a three-month creative burst in Batavia, where he has settled with his wife and two young sons after leaving the Army in 2005.

"A hair-raising tale of men in battle. 'House to House' is about as raw and real as it gets," wrote author and Newsweek writer Evan Thomas.

Fox News cable television, considered a right-leaning network, has refused to interview him, Bellavia said. But National Public Radio and other news organizations sometimes labeled as liberal or anti-war have opened their airwaves to him during his current book-promotion tour.

For his courage, Bellavia was awarded the Army's third highest honor, the Silver Star, and nominated for the country's highest military recognitions, the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.

For all of that, he doesn't feel like a hero.

He continues to support the war fiercely and believes it can be won now that Congress has asserted its role to oversee funding and demand results.

"A squeaky, whiny voice should start every time a check is written to fund the war," said Bellavia, who describes himself as a conservative, but is the first to say conservative leaders have made many mistakes in directing the war.

Bellavia, who left the Army after six years because his two sons were growing up without knowing their father, said he viewed his writing task as an obligation -- telling the truth about the true horror of war so that it will not be lost.

His writing is often profane and rich in detail, so much so that readers have sent him e-mails saying that they have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from reading it and the White House has refused to comment on the book publicly.

Opponents of the war have used it as an example of why the country should leave Iraq.

All of this has translated into book sales. On Amazon.com, Bellavia's book, which was written with the help of John Bruning, a military and aviation historian, is one of the top sellers of war-related books.

At 31, Bellavia is an unlikely man to be telling a grim story of war. The son of a dentist, he was a theater major at the University at Buffalo before joining the Army in 1999. Two of his three brothers attended Protestant seminaries and one now serves as a pastor.

He joined the Army because he needed a job, and he was quickly put to work. A member of the "Big Red One" 1st Infantry Division, Bellavia was sent to Kosovo in the Balkans as part of NATO's peacekeeping mission.

"We were actually defending Muslims. The Greek Orthodox Serbs were slaughtering them. We defended the mosques so that people could worship," Bellavia said, adding that he never once fired his rifle in an aggressive act during the nine-month mission there in 2002-03. "We were a glorified safety patrol."

The result, he said, was an advance education before shipping off to Iraq in February 2004.

By November 2004, Bellavia and his unit were in the middle of Fallujah, battling an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 insurgents after the civilian population evacuated the city.

"I called them the global all-star team of jihadists. They were from Chechnya, the Philippines, Russia . . . Africa. They weren't all Arabs," he said, basing his assessment on the paperwork removed from the bodies of insurgents.

These fighters, he said, were anything but "a bunch of undisciplined goat herders." During one fight, he watched an insurgent race down a street cradling a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

"I saw the guy in a dead sprint, and he turned sideways and fired, hitting his target, the hull of an Abrams tank. I thought to myself these guys are legitimate," Bellavia said. "I'd like to see a soldier at Fort Drum do that."

In one three-day period during the Fallujah battle, his company commander, executive officer and sergeant major were killed. In total, 36 in his unit died and more than 300 were wounded.

Late on the night of Nov. 10, 2004, in the final hours of his 29th birthday, Bellavia was leading his squad of nine soldiers through checks of houses in search of insurgents, when they came under fire in a three-story fortified house.

They backed out of the house and regrouped. Bellavia directed his squad members to surround the house. He re-entered alone, uncertain of how many enemies were inside, but with the intention of "softening the target."

Speaking in English, the insurgents taunted him, shouting, " 'Jew dog' and they're going to cut my 'head off and mommy won't find my dog tags.'

"In broken Arabic, I said 'I will kill the mujahdeen' and 'do not resist me. I'm an American.' "

Going on pure instinct to survive and perhaps a touch of madness, he said, he went after the insurgents. He shot and killed three on the first floor.

Racing up the steps to the second floor, he slipped on a splattering of blood and a fourth insurgent hiding in a room appeared and shot at him.

The two then began a deadly wrestling match.

"I was slamming him with my Kevlar helmet and my bulletproof vest plate. I kept telling him to shut up. His handgun went off, and I found my blade and hit his collarbone and neck. I put pressure on his carotid artery. In the book I called this 'Satan's version of CPR.' "

As the man bled to death, Bellavia could see his adversary was older with graying hair. Then, the unexpected happened.

In the book, Bellavia describes it this way:

"His face goes slack. His right hand slips from my hair. It hangs in the air for a moment, then with one last spasm of strength, he brings it to my cheek. It lingers there, and as I look into his dying eyes, he caresses the side of my face.

"His hand runs gently from my cheek to my jaw, then falls to the floor.

"He takes a last ragged breath, and his eyes go dim, still staring into mine.

"Why did he touch me like that at the end?"

Then, Bellavia answers his own question:

"He was forgiving me."

A few minutes later on a second-floor patio, a fifth and final insurgent jumped down from a third-floor ledge. Bellavia shot and killed him.

Bellavia will be signing copies of his book at 2 p.m. today in Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 4401 Transit Road, Clarence.

As for the war, Bellavia helped establish VetsForFreedom.org, a nonprofit group that supports winning the war.

"I'm for victory because I don't know what else to do. We go to war in America to win them, not to decide whether to fight after we start taking casualties," he said.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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