For years, military advocates have pointed to the heroic death of Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and the subsequent Defense Department decision not to award him the Medal of Honor as proof that the entire military medals system needs a dramatic overhaul.
Now, nearly 15 years after Cashe died after suffering fatal injuries while trying to rescue his fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq, the Pentagon appears poised to grant him that highest military honor, and make him the first African American to receive the award for actions in the most recent wars.
On Friday, a group of House lawmakers announced that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had informed them of his intent to recommend the Medal of Honor for Cashe, a Florida native who served in the first Gulf War and two subsequent tours in Iraq before his death in November 2005.
Cashe was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his repeated rescue attempts, which resulted in second and third degree burns over nearly 75 percent of his body. Witnesses said that even as the heat burned his uniform and body armor off of him, Cashe continued to ignore the pain to pull his men out of the fire.
At the time of the Silver Star award, Army officials said that even though the vehicle was set ablaze by a roadside bomb, Cashe’s actions did not merit the Medal of Honor because the soldiers were not in active combat.
However, follow-on investigations found the initial reports of the attack left out enemy gunfire which raked the ground around Cashe throughout his rescue attempts.
“After giving the nomination careful consideration, I agree that SFC Cashe’s actions merit award of the Medal of Honor,” Esper wrote in the letter to the lawmakers. “If he so chooses … I will provide my endorsement (for Cashe’s medal upgrade) to the President.”
Before that can occur, however, Congress must pass new legislation extending the time frame for upgrading the military honors. Under current law, those actions must take place within five years of the heroic act, a deadline that passed nearly a decade ago.
The lawmakers at the center of the latest push to honor Cashe — Reps. Michael Waltz R-Fla., Stephanie Murphy D-Fla., and Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — noted that language on the issue was already included in the House’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill and hope to guide that provision through conference work in coming weeks.
“Alwyn Cashe’s extraordinary courage on behalf of his fellow soldiers, in the face of danger and death, embodies everything the Medal of Honor represents,” Waltz said in a statement.
“Cashe is a Florida and American hero. He without a doubt deserves our nation’s highest honor and I’m very glad Secretary Esper and our Department of Defense agree and recognize his heroic actions.”
Over the years, military advocates have questioned whether Cashe’s race played a factor in the Pentagon’s reluctance to upgrade the honor, but also demanded broader reviews of how the Medal of Honor process is handled amid a perception that troops from the current wars face a higher level of scrutiny for their heroism than past conflicts.
Only six of the medals have been awarded for actions in Iraq, all of them posthumous. Eighteen others have been awarded for valor in Afghanistan.
A total of 261 were awarded for actions during the Vietnam War and 145 for actions in the Korean War. About 3,500 of the medals have been awarded since the honor was started during the American Civil War.
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.