Decorated Vietnam Veteran calls Bellavia "Exceptional"

Steve Banko one on one with WBEN


Buffalo, N.Y. (WBEN) -  "I saw a re-enactment of what David Bellavia did, it was truly exceptional," said Stephen T. Banko, Western New York's most decorated Vietnam veteran.

Banko, who served 2 combat tours in Vietnam, reflected on his own service, while discussing the Medal of Honor award for Iraq war veteran David Bellavia.  "When you read what Staff Sargeant Bellavia did in Fallujah to get his Medal of Honor, my service pales in comparison". 

Banko, recipient of 4 Purple Hearts, an Air Medal, 4 Bronze Stars, 2 Silver Stars and a Combat Infantry Badge, said it makes you forget about all of the war movies you've ever seen, and think about what actually happens in combat and who rises to the occasion.

"One of the big differences between David's experience and mine, he was fighting house to house and we were fighting in a jungle situation.  We didn't get as close to the enemy as he did," said Banko.  "That's a special kind of guy that can face that kind of danger and still keep his head in the game".  

After seeing a re-enactment of what Bellavia did several years ago, Banko thought to himself, all he got was a Silver Star?   "To realize that there had been a review going on, all I can think now is, what took so long?".

The Medal of Honor has special meaning for Banko.  "I'm alive, literally, because of a man who received the Medal of Honor posthumously in the big battle I was in on December 3rd, 1968.  He literally saved my life, at the cost of his own".

In Banko's situation, he and his men were surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers. They were outnumbered by about 4 to 1 and under constant attack. "I had a machine gun behind an ant hill and the ant hill got struck by a rocket propelled grenade. It blew the barrel off the machine gun. I had 700 rounds of machine gun ammunition.  John Holcomb of Oregon recognized the situation and ran 50 yards across a bullet-swept battlefield to bring me another machine gun. In the process Holcomb was shot 4 times in the chest. 

His unit had 86% casualties.  Banko suffered for years with survivors guilt. "When you get a gift like that, when someone makes that kind of sacrifice for you, the only thing that matters is how do you honor that sacrifice," he said.

Banko can only imagine what David Bellavia's life will be like because of the Medal of Honor. "I know he's an articulate guy.  He's going to be in demand to tell his story and the story of the men he served with. That's the legacy of being designated a hero. You not only have the responsibility to live up to that designation, but also to inform and enlighten people in civilian life, especially now when so few people serve in the military.  I'm sure that he will live up to the legacy of the medal," said Banko.

"David's heroism and dedication to his fellow soldiers is not going to stop when they put that medal around his neck. That will be the end of the beginning. Then he will begin another chapter where he will be an ambassador and spokesman for all of us," said Banko.

Banko thinks if there was one lasting legacy from Vietnam, it was how not to treat veterans, referring to what was an unpopular war.  "If we taught the country anything, it was that soldiers are honorable in what they're trying to do. The mission is not ours to decide". 



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