Of all the phone calls Metra Conductor Omarr Hardaway has had with his friend and former U.S. Army squad leader Bell, none compare to one he received this spring.
“We’re going to the White House,” Bell said.
Then came the voice on the other end of the phone: a message from President Donald Trump informing Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia – known to Hardaway as “Bell” for the past 18 years – that he had been awarded the country’s highest military honor.
On June 25, Hardaway and about 30 members of his platoon traveled to Washington D.C. to stand beside Bellavia as he became the first living Iraq War veteran to receive the Medal of Honor. Trump presented the medal to Bellavia for the bravery and valor he displayed on Nov. 10, 2004 as the squad leader in support Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq.
“Acting on instinct to save the members of his platoon from an imminent threat, Staff Sergeant Bellavia ultimately cleared an entire enemy-filled house, destroyed four insurgents, and badly wounded a fifth,” the Medal of Honor citation read. “Staff Sergeant Bellavia's bravery, complete disregard for his own safety, and unselfish and courageous actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
Metra conductor Omarr Hardaway (back, center) attends a Medal of Honor reception for former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia (front, center) at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, Arlington VA, June 24, 2019. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Kevin Roy)
Bellavia was Hardaway’s squad leader in A Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division beginning in 2001. During their service together, Hardaway came to know Bellavia as an extremely smart, funny and influential leader. Bellavia’s ability to guide and unite his platoon inspired Hardaway to become a staff sergeant himself.
Their unit deployed to Kosovo for nine months in 2003 before being deployed to Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. After being in active combat together, Bellavia nominated Hardaway for the Bronze Star Medal, which Hardaway now displays on his conductor’s hat.
Two days before the battle that earned Bellavia the Medal of Honor, Hardaway was sent to Master Gunner School in Ft. Benning, Georgia. He knew his platoon had made it through the battle safely, but didn’t hear the full story of what happened until about a year later. It has become one of many war stories they share.
He wasn’t surprised to hear Bellavia had earned such a prestigious honor. And he was humbled to be invited to the ceremony with the rest of his platoon, who he calls family. Though they still speak, Hardaway hadn't seen many of them, including Bellavia, in 12 years.
Hardaway said when he walked on stage that day, Trump shook his hand and said “thank you for your service.” Then Hardaway hugged Bellavia before turning around to face an exhilarating sea of bright lights and high-ranking military officials in the crowd.
Metra conductor Omarr Hardaway hugs his former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia on stage at the White House during a Medal of Honor ceremony June 25. Bellavia was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions while serving as a squad leader with the 1st Infantry Division in support of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Kevin Roy)
“A lot of soldiers don’t get the opportunity, not just to go to the White House, but to go to the White House and be part of a Medal of Honor ceremony,” Hardaway said. “I got to stand on stage with the President and the combat infantry soldiers I served with because my fellow NCO was receiving a Medal of Honor. David had us come up on stage and share his award with us. He shared that moment. Time stood still for a second, maybe two.”
Bellavia gave Hardaway a signed ceremony program with a note that, in part, thanked Hardaway for keeping him safe and ensuring he returned home to his family. Bellavia also signed a program for Hardaway’s Metra family.
“Metra Rock Island conductors and engineers,” the black marker inscription above Bellavia’s signature reads.
Hardaway credits the support of his co-workers and supervisors on the Rock Island Line and Metra for making the four-day trip to D.C. possible. His supervisor, Dave Cook, the director of operations for the Rock Island, Heritage Corridor and SouthWest Service, said he did everything he could to ensure Hardaway would be able to take the time away from Metra to be at the ceremony.
He described Hardaway, a conductor with Metra for six years, as an ideal employee: friendly, dependable and trustworthy. A veteran of the U.S. Marines himself, Cook recognized the importance the day carried.
“It really made me proud to be a veteran and to see one of our own be in a place like that: standing in the White House, standing next to the president, with his platoon.”