WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday awarded the Medal of Honor to three U.S. soldiers for battlefield actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, a group that includes the first Black service member to be recognized with the military’s top combat distinction for actions occurring since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, 35, received the award posthumously for repeatedly braving flames to rescue fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq in 2005, while Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz, 32, was recognized posthumously for protecting a medical evacuation helicopter in Afghanistan in 2018 until he was killed. Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, 41, accepted the award in person for his role in blunting an attack by suicide bombers on his base in Afghanistan in 2013.
“Each of you knows what it means to stare down danger and summon the strength in a moment of trial,” Biden said. “We’re grateful for all that you have done – and so many more.”
The ceremony marked the first time that Biden awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in modern wars, including the Afghanistan conflict from which he withdrew the United States in August.
Each of the cases recognized extraordinary acts, with Cashe and Plumlee requiring congressional intervention to waive a requirement that the medal be awarded within five years of the action it recognizes. For years, U.S. defense officials have wrestled with how to appropriately assess troops’ most significant actions in combat, upgrading numerous lower-level awards to the Medal of Honor after further review.
Cashe, 35, is credited with repeatedly braving a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle near the Iraqi town of Duluiyah on Oct. 17, 2005, after it hit a roadside bomb that ruptured a fuel tank, spurting flames into a vehicle filled with U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter. Despite suffering injuries in the explosion, Cashe stepped into the flames to pull at least seven people from the fire.
Cashe died about three weeks later, after suffering burns over 72 percent of his body and infections that eventually led to the amputation of both legs, survivors of the attack and family members said. He initially was awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for recognizing combat valor. His commanders fought for years for the upgrade.
Biden said on Thursday that Cashe was “a soldier’s soldier – a warrior who literally walked through fire for his troops.”
Plumlee, a member of 1st Special Forces Group, was recognized after a lengthy bureaucratic fight in which his nomination for the Medal of Honor was downgraded by the Army to the Silver Star despite support from several of the U.S. military’s top generals.
He is credited with taking on rifle-wielding suicide bombers – at times from no more than a few dozen feet away. The battle occurred at Forward Operating Base Ghazni on Aug. 28, 2013, after enemy fighters detonated a 400-pound truck bomb on the perimeter, causing a 60-foot wide breach.
Plumlee, then a staff sergeant, and five other special operations soldiers rushed to get to the blast site, with Plumlee’s driver, Sgt. 1st Class Nate Abkemeier, maneuvering their Toyota pickup truck into enemy fire to shield wounded teammates. Plumlee exited the vehicle under fire, shot back with a pistol and occasionally found himself alone in the ensuing battle, with insurgents knocking him off his feet after detonating suicide vests. Several soldiers involved the battle have received other medals for their actions that day.
Biden said Plumlee’s heroic actions and battlefield leadership prevented an even worse outcome from occurring.
“This recognition has been too long in coming – delayed for you and your family, as well,” the president said. “No one will ever forget how you sprang into action when the enemy attacked our base.”
Celiz’s wife, Katie, received the medal on his behalf. A member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, he is credited with braving machine-gun fire during a medical evacuation, repositioning himself multiple times and acting as a human shield for an Army helicopter and its crew. Celiz was shot as the aircraft lifted off, but he waved off the helicopter from staying in the kill zone.
Biden, reflecting on Celiz’s actions, said that he “knowingly and willingly stepped into the enemy’s crosshairs” to protect fellow soldiers.
“Christopher Celiz was courage made flesh,” Biden said.
Kasinal Cashe White, one of Cashe’s sisters, told reporters prior the White House ceremony that the award shows her brother remained “true to himself” in combat.
“No matter where it is, he’ll be memorialized in history,” she said. “And that means that someone in the U.S. Army is going to have to learn his story to get a promotion. That’s going to be astronomical.”
Plumlee said told reporters that he was certain he would die.
“I still don’t know still why they weren’t able to hit me,” he said.
But he was injured by the suicide vests exploding, suffering three herniated discs in his back and one in his neck.
“It’s not a traumatic injury, but it has been a nagging one,” he said. “It has made it kind of arduous to continue my service.”
Celiz’s wife said that her husband’s men and mission were the most important thing to him.
“It’s overwhelming to think about how selfless he could be sometimes,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that I get so angry – because he didn’t think about his actions could affect himself. Because for him, it was never about himself. It was always about his men, his country and his family.”