On June 25, 2019, David Bellavia received the Medal of Honor for actions in Fallujah in November 2004. David is the sole living recipient of the MOH from the Iraq War, the others were awarded posthumously.
David and I worked together on his memoirs back in 2006-07. We were under such a tight deadline that we never met while writing together. All our contact was over the phone, and an occasional e-mail. Nevertheless, David quickly became one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Funny, heartfelt, he has a sharp wit and the knack for turning a phrase. He’d give the shirt off his back to help a friend.
At David’s invitation, I flew to D.C. to be there for the ceremony. After House to House was finished, we’ve remained friends, kicking around follow-up book ideas that never quite fit. Along the way, we’d gone through a whole lot of life–the great stuff like kids being born, and hard stuff like my family going through a series of crazy medical challenges. We were always there for each other. So yeah, meeting David was a decade overdue.
The first night the guests arrived, the Sergeant Major of the Army held a reception at our hotel. I walked in knowing only David and our agent, Jim Hornfischer. As I looked around the room, neither was there. I started to feel very out of place.
Back in the day, I could work a room. I was an extrovert who loved meeting new people. That was before Katrina hit New Orleans, before Taylor Marks, and Chris Kilcullen were killed, and before I went to Afghanistan. All that made me a late-in-life introvert, more at ease deep in the Oregon woods with my Jordanian dog and swimming cat than around strangers with Medal of Honors around their necks or stars on their shoulder boards.
I tried to make some small talk, seeking out those in uniform who wore the 3rd Infantry Division insignia. I’d stuffed a pair of 3rd ID cufflinks in my coat pocket as a reminder of the people I got to know in Afghanistan. They remain genuinely the greatest humans I’ve ever met, and as I introduced myself to the Rock of the Marne vets in attendance that night, I restated that fact many times.
Jim came into the room with his family, and I tried not to be a social leech, clinging to their coattails as we were surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Jim can work a room, though, and he was soon out meeting everyone he could, shaking hands and bantering with copious charisma and charm. He really is amazing to watch in such a setting. I couldn’t keep up, so I drifted off, taking photos and generally hiding behind my camera to mask my discomfort.
A moment later, David and his family entered the room. As he made his way around, shaking hands and bear-hugging those who came to share this incredible experience with him, I found myself pulled along behind him, watching with a keenly stupid smile on my face. He looked so happy to see everyone, and the affection for him in the room was genuinely profound. Here was a man whose heart and simple kindness withstood so many trials–both in Iraq and here at home during election seasons. It was a testament of strength that both were not crushed by bitterness or anger.
Eventually, he spotted me. He broke away from a couple of people congratulating him and gave me the manhug of all manhugs. His voice broke. I started to cry. Around freaking generals and the sergeant major of the army. Finally, after all we’d been through, we’d met at last. And it was like we’d always been around each other. Top five life moment right there.
When he was waylaid a moment later by another well-wisher, I bolted for the bathroom to pull myself together. When I returned, I felt awkward and out of place again, trying to make small talk around a standing table with Jim and another MOH recipient.
Then Jim introduced me to Merrilee Carlson– “Shrek’s Mom.” It took a moment for the Shrek thing to sink in. Then I remembered David telling me about this burly Minnesotan who’d been a favorite of the Ramrods. His name was Michael Carlson, but everyone called him Shrek.
With a sinking heart, I realized Shrek was one of the Soldiers killed in a Bradley roll-over in January 2005. It had happened after Fallujah, and we hadn’t written about it in House to House. We’d talked about a sequel that covered the rest of the deployment, but we’d never made it happen.
I’ve been writing for twenty-three years, and I’ve encountered every manner of response from people once they learn I’ve written a book about their friends or units. That we didn’t write about her son made me fear Shrek’s mom would chew me out, as has happened before.
Instead, a remarkable thing happened. We bonded. Instantly. As we talked, I braved a mention of our own loss here in Independence–Taylor Marks–and how devastating his death was to me personally. “You never get over it, you just grow around the pain.”–that is a life truth grieving for Taylor drilled into me.
From that moment on, Shrek’s mom and I went everywhere and did pretty much everything together for the rest of the MOH week. She took me under her wing, showed me the ropes at the White House, got me a seat on an aisle during the ceremony so I could get a clear photograph of David and the President. She even told one of the White House ushers to (politely) buzz off when we were asked to move. Seriously, Merrilee Carlson is a force of nature, part avenging angel, part energizer bunny, friend to everyone and clearly in charge. After her son was killed, she went on to found and run a non-profit that honors and supports Gold Star families.
The day after the ceremony, David gave a speech at the Pentagon. Afterward, we headed back to the hotel with plenty of time left in the day. Merrilee, Michele Lawson (Ramrod Scott Lawson’s sister-in-law) and I went to Arlington to visit Shrek. Merrilee brought him fresh flowers, a small bottle of Jack Daniels, and a cigar. Shrek loved cigars.
As we stood beside his grave, in a section of Arlington dominated by Iraq War fallen, Merrilee told us the story of how her son died. On January 25, 2005, he was killed along with four other members of TF-2-2 when an Iraqi roadway collapsed under the weight of their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and it tumbled into a canal.
When Taylor was killed in Iraq in August, 2009, the news destroyed me. I slept-walked through life, numb with pain for years. It wasn’t until 2014 that I began to make my peace with his death in Baghdad. Merrilee had endured far worse than I had. And yet, she handled it with grace, reaching out to help others and run an organization that did a lot of good for grieving families. She turned a devastating blow into a beautiful positive, never losing her own pain, but rising above it to give back to a community and country she understands and loves.
It made me realize how selfish I’d been. Instead of reaching out, I turned within and lost sight of everything but my own anguish and guilt over Taylor’s loss. I didn’t find a way to give back. I just broke. Merrilee’s strength left me in awe. It is the kind of strength, on a macro level, that has held this country together for generations despite every loss and hardship imaginable.
As dusk approached, we went to dinner down by the White House, the three of us chatting and getting to know each other better. From Michele, I learned that Scott had died in an accident in 2013. He’d been with David in Fallujah, was wounded in the house David re-entered on the night of his 29th birthday. Michele was there at David’s invitation to represent the Lawson family.
After dinner, we wandered from the 1st Infantry Division Memorial down the Mall. We stopped at the World War II Memorial, then experienced the Lincoln Memorial together. I’d last been there in 1982, and never at night.
I’d gone to D.C. to finally meet an old friend face-to-face and see the President award him the Medal of Honor. To my astonishment, at the end of the trip I came home warmed by the knowledge that I’d just met two more friends who surely will be in my life for years to come.
Back in Oregon a few days later on my daughter’s 21st birthday, we went down to the beach. It was crowded and sunny and people were playing all around us. We hiked the dunes, took photos and explored the tide pools. On our way back to the car, I caught myself stopping and chatting with strangers. My kids glanced at each other. What is up with dad? When they watched me step into a chartered bus and ask the driver, “Where we going?” They glanced at each other again. They waited as the bus driver and I talked for a bit, then I bounced out into the street and returned to our car.
“What’s with you?” the kids asked me.
I didn’t know what they meant.
“You’re talking to everybody! What the hell?”
I thought I was just being me. But I was being the me before all the heaviness of life turned me inward. With a start, I realized they were too young to remember the old extrovert me who in high school used to sing in public and never met a stranger, only friends I’d yet to be introduced to.
“What’s happened to you?” my son asked.
“Shrek’s mom,” I replied.