Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia is the only living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in the Iraq War, and he doesn’t know why.

“I probably right now could name you seven people worthy of the medal from (the Battle of) Fallujah alone,” he said during a veterans forum hosted by the Washington Post on Wednesday. “This award is so cloak and dagger, secret.”

Bellavia received the honor from President Donald Trump in June. He had previously been awarded the Silver Star for his heroics in November 2004 as the squad leader with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, but saw that recognition upgraded after a lengthy review of his case.

Since 2001, only six men have received the nation’s highest military honor for battlefield actions in Iraq, and all but Bellavia were killed in action. In contrast, 18 Medals of Honor have been awarded for valor in Afghanistan, 14 to living recipients.

When asked why he thinks the two wars have been treated differently for military medals, Bellavia blamed public perception of the wars.

“We made a huge mistake when we made ‘good’ wars and ‘bad’ wars,” he said. “And a lot of us Iraq war veterans wear a chip on our shoulders that we don’t deserve.

“When we came home and everyone started asking where we served … for Afghanistan, (the response) was ‘thank you for your service.’ For Iraq, it was ‘I’m so sorry.’ That’s garbage. That’s shameful. We don’t put policy before the valor of a generation. I believe there are a lot of people who wanted to forget Iraq and not think of it again.”

The 43-year-old veteran, who has written extensively about his time in Iraq, said he hopes Defense Department leaders will continue reviewing cases like his to consider other award upgrades.

He mentioned two other cases from Iraq he thought were worthy of the Medal of Honor: Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who died after falling on a grenade but whose actions have been disputed by physicians and former colleagues; and Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal, who survived a similar assault in 2004.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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