David Bellavia is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Iraq, recognized for his heroism during the Second battle of Fallujah in November 2004 and author of Remember the Ramrods.
My squad was exhausted.
And I was hallucinating.
We’d just kicked in what felt like our 100,000th door going house to house clearing the ancient, crowded city of Fallujah in central Iraq on the Euphrates River.
Our mission: eliminate an alphabet soup of insurgents from al-Qaeda to Ansar al-Sunna to the National Islamic Army.
It was urban warfare at its most ghoulish – intense close quarter not seen since World War Two.
Here you don’t shoot your enemy from 200 meters away.
Here you make eye contact, speak to the person trying to slaughter you in whispered threats through a bullet-pocked wall.
Here you smell his breath.
Soldiers aren’t conditioned for this. How could they be?
Even those who survive will be changed – perhaps irrevocably.
Now, as Israel’s ground invasion of an even more densely populated Gaza City begins in earnest, I remember that fight and the terrible lessons that no man should have to learn.
In March 2003, a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq with the goal of neutralizing the dictator Saddam Hussein and his purported cache of weapons of mass destruction.
We’d just kicked in what felt like our 100,000th door going house to house clearing the ancient, crowded city of Fallujah in central Iraq on the Euphrates River. Pictured: US Army in Iraq in 2004
David Bellavia is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Iraq, recognized for his heroism during the Second battle of Fallujah in November 2004
Now, as Israel’s ground invasion of an even more densely populated Gaza City begins in earnest, I remember that fight and the terrible lessons that no man should have to learn
After the regular Iraqi forces quickly melted away, America was left fighting a Frankenstein’s monster of terrorist groups intent on tearing the country apart.
By November 2004, Fallujah had become the center of the Iraqi insurgency.
US coalition forces had failed to subdue the city once already. The Second Battle of Fallujah was meant to finish the job.
Little did we know it would become the bloodiest fight in the entirely of the war.
I was squad leader of 11 young soldiers – aged 19 to 22 years old. At 29, I was the old man.
We had studied Fallujah’s urban layout from satellite imagery and maps, but once inside nothing looked even remotely familiar.
The pre-assault bombardment had turned avenues into burning rivers of twisted wreckage, side streets were clogged with smashed bricks, buildings were mangled husks.
After a few hours, we had cuts crisscrossing our arms and faces; uniforms were torn; pant legs burned and blood stained.
Sharp steel bars jutting out of rubble heaps stabbed us as we dove to avoid sporadic gun fire. Cables tangled up around our legs and tripped us up.
Most of the civilian population of Fallujah had fled – a mercy that Israeli troops going into Gaza won’t enjoy – but there were still innocent elderly and infirmed who couldn’t get out.
Some of these desperate people were wrapped in bandages that I had to touch to make sure that they were real – for the enemy often hid among them.
These ‘reluctant martyrs,’ as we called them, saw the civilians streaming out of the city as their ticket to escape.
The terrorists were also not above using them as human shields.
It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between an enemy threat and a non-combatant when you’re busting through a doorway.
The soldier who pulls the trigger and takes an innocent life has to live with that on their conscience.
That’s why the enemy does it.
After a few days on the ground, we were all desperately hungry and sleep deprived. Whatever rest we got was in short, anxious bursts. Whatever food we ate only made us sicker.
Most of the civilian population of Fallujah had fled – a mercy that Israeli troops going into Gaza won’t enjoy – but there were still innocent elderly and infirmed who couldn’t get out. (Above) Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City on Friday, October 27, 2023
(Above) U.S. Marines as they battle with insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on November 16, 2004
I was squad leader of 11 young soldiers – aged 19 to 22 years old. At 29, I was the old man. (Above) Bellavia is second from left
That’s what living among decomposing bodies does to a person. Absolutely everything is covered in bacteria spreading diarrhea, fevers, you name it.
All you can do is hold on.
My throbbing eyeballs felt like they were going to pop out of my head. Hearing was shot from endless explosions.
In these conditions, smell is the only sense that still works. So, we trusted our noses with our lives.
I remember entering a house – just like any other – with a high metal gate, blown out windows and seemingly abandoned.
We were smoking cigarettes to keep our minds off the chaos.
Then, we froze.
A clean orange cup was sitting on a filthy countertop where everything else was covered in an inch of grim and dirt.
It meant someone was living here.
And most likely, they would try to kill us.
Our tails went up.
We flipped the switch from a group of kids that you’d find on any college campus to a pack of animals.
Blood rushed to my head but all I was seeing were floaters in my line of sight.
I sniffed, picking up his body odor, the last time he used the bathroom, his breath.
We shot the drapes, the couch, the door – not because we saw the enemy, but because we smelled him.
He was behind the door, and we hit him in the face.
The house went from dead silent to filled with horrendous screams.
In these conditions, smell is the only sense that still works. So, we trusted our noses with our lives. (Above) Aftermath of a U.S. military airstrike attack on the northern part of Fallujah on October 14, 2004
My throbbing eyeballs felt like they were going to pop out of my head. Hearing was shot from endless explosions. (Above) Bellavia in Iraq in 2004
That’s what it’s like – over and over again – when an army gives up the comforts of modern warfare and goes in on the ground.
On Friday, Israel ‘expanded’ its siege of Gaza after days of bombardments to ‘prepare for the battlefield’ and weeks of delay.
Still, this type of fight favors defenders.
Insurgents in Fallujah took full advantage of that. They built doorways that opened onto brick walls; trip wires that ran across entrances; dangling pineapple grenades with pins shaved off were triggered to explode when we walked in.
My squad would enter into a courtyard and find ourselves in a cinder block maze. Take a left – there’s a wall. Take a right – a dead end. On the rooftop was a guy with a machine gun shooting at you like you’re a rat looking for cheese.
Losing your life to a game can really piss you off.
There’s no way to truly prepare for this – especially the tunnels.
Gaza is a two-layer cake. Civilians are on top and Hamas underground.
Fortunately for us in Iraq, the sandy soil made an extensive subterranean system impossible. Not so for Gaza, which has one of the most complex underground complexes known to man and they’ve have 17 years to prepare for this battle.
First person perspectives from The Battle of Verdun in World War One are very clear on how they got through. Tunnel fighting is not about skill. It’s about firepower, superiority, unflinching movement.
With no ventilation gun smoke fills tunnels. You can’t breathe and you can’t see the enemy, but they know you’re there. Move forward, keep your fire low, every single bullet has to hit something, so that they can’t fire back.
Retreat in a tunnel and you’re dead.
Everything is trap, especially the roads. So, we created our own. When the insurgents blocked a thoroughfare, we’d blow a building to shreds and drive straight through it.
If I could only offer one piece of advice to the IDF units going into Gaza, I’d warn them they’re facing an enemy who doesn’t expect to survive.
As bad as conditions were for US soldiers in Fallujah, it was worse for the insurgents who’d pump themselves full of dope just to be able to function.
In Iraq, it was some form of pharmaceutical cocaine.
They’d sweat profusely. Their hearts, beating like crazy, pumped blood so hard it made their veins bulge out of their arms.
You’d graze one of them on the shoulder and he would bleed out – spurting blood across the room.
In Gaza, they’re reportedly on Captagon – a vile synthetic amphetamine.
A stoned enemy will do things that no normal soldier would even consider.
Zombified Iraqi terrorists would purposefully expose their own to our gunfire. When we took out the bait, they’d opened up on us after we revealed our positions.
And once you thought you’d won the fight, they’d just blow the building up – killing you, them and everyone else.
The sick reality of urban war against homicidal maniacs is that you can do everything right and still die.
It’s a crapshoot. It’s all luck. It’s emotionally debilitating.
All war is hell.
This is something else entirely.
Israel may justifiably see no other option than a full ground invasion of Gaza to destroy the terrorists who massacred their people.
But they also must consider how many more they’ll lose.
And how many more will physically return home yet always be left behind in Gaza – in spirit.