Orleans County native David Bellavia was presented with the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony Tuesday.
It's the highest possible military decoration, which Bellavia received in recognition of actions taken during a November 2004 battle which saved his troops from enemy fire during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq. It's a big day, of course, for the veteran, but it's just as special for those who know him, including folks who knew him while he grew up in Lyndonville, New York.
Mark Hughes knew Bellavia when he was a student in his English classes in eighth and tenth grades in Lyndonville Central Schools.
"He was a good student," said Hughes, now retired. "He wasn't an angel by any stretch of the imagination. He was a good boy, he was all boy, so to speak. He would get into a few mishaps and scrapes. When David did something he shouldn't have done, he would be the first to come clean and that would be the end of it."
Hughes adds that a young Bellavia showed leadership, in the classroom and on the athletic field, not because he was a star in the latter category but because he was one whose friendliness and character attracted those who followed him.
Bellavia, while leading men in Fallujah in November 2004, took out several enemy combatants who posed a threat to his troops during a house-to-house campaign. Earlier this month, when the U.S. Army hosted a news conference in Cheektowaga one day after the White House officially announced Bellavia's pending honor, the local radio talk show host and former congressional candidate suggested that while he will get the medal, this honor is for all of those who served with him.
"I don't really think a person receives an award. I think it's the award is what people respect and the person is just the custodian of it," Bellavia said on June 11.
He published his experiences in a book, House to House, which became the first book chosen by Dr. Patrick Welch for his syllabus when he taught a course at Daemen College. Welch, a veterans' advocate who currently serves as a senior mentor for the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, explains that many of the social work students he taught would possibly work with veterans in their futures and would need to learn the perspective of a warrior directly from a warrior.
He believes Bellavia expressed it well in his book.
"There's a fact no clinician on this earth can argue with me on, and that's no one - absolutely no one - ever goes to war and returns as the same person," Welch said. "You do things in a war zone that you would not normally do in the course of daily living and you do it to stay alive and you do it for the men and women that are serving with you on your left and right."
Among the 48 million men and women who have served in the U.S. military, dating back to the American Revolutionary War, only 3,523 have been presented the Medal of Honor. Bellavia's ceremony Tuesday at the White House was historically significant because he became the first surviving Iraq War veteran to receive the Medal of Honor.
Back home in Lyndonville, Hughes suggests the upcoming Independence Day parade - a popular tradition in the community - would be dedicated in Bellavia's honor. He also believes that one day some local landmark or location will be renamed to bear his name.
"We're a very small town here in Lyndonville. We don't have a lot of people who are in world news, so to speak," Hughes said, "and so it's nice to see someone from our area get such high acclaim."