The administrative road to the nation’s highest award for valor sometimes isn’t a straight line.
And for two of the three soldiers who will receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Joe Biden on Thursday, that holds especially true.
Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee both saw their awards delayed so long that they required special authorization from Congress in the fiscal 2021 defense bill — and dogged persistence from key advocates in the Army.
Cashe’s path to the medal
Cashe died of burns he received in October 2005 when an IED strike in Samarra, Iraq, ruptured the fuel cell of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle, setting it ablaze. With no regard for his safety, he went back into the burning vehicle amid small arms fire and pulled out six soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, one-by-one.
Cashe died a month later at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio from the burns that covered three-quarters of his body, but three of his soldiers ultimately survived thanks to him.
Initially, though, Cashe’s battalion commander — now Lt. Gen. Gary Brito — only recommended him for the Silver Star. But as the full truth of Cashe’s heroism came to light, Brito launched a campaign to get him the Medal of Honor.
Brito, who is now the head of the service’s personnel directorate, spearheaded a years-long crusade to honor Cashe. He spent years gathering firsthand eyewitness statements and rallying support for the NCO.
Kasinal Cashe-White, the fallen NCO’s sister, told reporters Wednesday that Brito’s support, along with assistance from others in the Army, was validating.
“[Their support] meant that the stories that we heard back in October 2005…were true,” she said, emotion creeping into her voice.
On the eve of the medal ceremony at the White House, where Cashe’s widow Tamara will accept the posthumous award from Biden, Army Times spoke with Brito about his long-running effort to honor one of his soldiers.
Brito understands why the process was so arduous, taking “years to get some appropriate signatures, a little time to get the [necessary] Congressional support…and the firsthand witness statements,” he explained.
“The integrity of the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, cannot and never should be compromised,” said Brito. “He didn’t give up and I didn’t want to give up.”
The “gravity” of Cashe’s actions loomed larger in his mind over time, Brito explained, saying he “felt committed as a leader, as his former battalion commander, and as somebody close to it that [pursuing the Medal of Honor] was just something that I had to do.”
It’s not clear why there were delays for Cashe’s long-awaited award, including retired Lt. Gen. John R. Vines’ reported refusal to endorse an early upgrade request. But Brito said he “didn’t let emotions to get into it” and instead focused on proving that Cashe was worthy of the medal.
Plumlee and Celiz’s awards
Plumlee, a Green Beret, is receiving the medal for his efforts to repel a complex suicide attack by Taliban fighters at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan, in August 2013.
He and other special operations soldiers raced to respond after the militants poured into a perimeter breach, stopping the well-armed attackers from reaching more populous portions of the base.
Initially, Plumlee’s award was downgraded to the Silver Star, reportedly sparking frustration within the Special Forces community.
A 2016 Defense Department inspector general report revealed that one member of an Army awards board had voted against the award because Plumlee was simply doing his job as a well-trained senior NCO.
Asked about the wait Wednesday, Plumlee told reporters that it “didn’t bother” him.
“All that scrutiny…I just think really validates [the award],” he added.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz’s posthumous award happened in a more timely manner — the actions that earned him the Medal of Honor took place in July 2018 in Paktia Province, Afghanistan.
Celiz, a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, was mortally wounded while providing vital cover for a medical evacuation helicopter. The NCO was supporting a secret program that assisted the CIA in hunting down militant leaders, according to Politico.
He initially received the Bronze Star with V device, which signifies the award was earned in valorous conditions. Members of the helicopter crew, who were also decorated for valor, have previously credited Celiz with saving their lives that day.
His wife, Katie Celiz, said she wasn’t even aware her late husband had been submitted for the Medal of Honor.
And although the nation’s highest award for valor is a meaningful tribute to the two awardees who died, their relatives explained, it isn’t a replacement.
“This is the highest honor that our nation can give to a person,” said Cashe-White. “But I’d trade it all to erase Oct. 17, 2005. I’d trade it all, just to have him home.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.