From left: Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe’s sister Kasinal Cashe-White, and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz’s widow Katie Celiz, speak to reporters about the Medal of Honor Dec. 15, 2021.

From left: Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe’s sister Kasinal Cashe-White, and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz’s widow Katie Celiz, speak to reporters about the Medal of Honor Dec. 15, 2021. Caitlin M. Kenney / Defense One

Three Soldiers to Receive Medal of Honor

The awards are for actions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Three soldiers will receive the Medal of Honor Thursday for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one whose case was widely shared on social media and highlighted the award’s challenging process.

President Joe Biden will present the nation’s highest medal for valor to Army Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee and the families of Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz.

Cashe’s family has been waiting more than a decade to see his heroic actions recognized.

“When it was official, I was surprised. We had heard rumors along the way that it was coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. OK, pull up, it's not coming. So, it was like a roller coaster ride,” his sister, Kasinal Cashe-White, told reporters Wednesday.

Cashe was the platoon sergeant for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit an improvised explosive device during a night patrol on Oct. 17, 2005, near Samarra, Iraq.

He rescued six soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter from the burning vehicle, all while the enemy was shooting at the unit. While he was pulling people out of the vehicle, Cashe’s fuel-soaked clothing caught fire and nearly 72 percent of his body was burned, according to the Army. He made sure the other soldiers were cared for before he finally walked onto a helicopter to be evacuated.

During the evacuation effort and in the hospital, Cashe continued to ask how his soldiers were doing.

“People who passed away overseas, they didn't get a chance to say goodbye—their families didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. He made that happen. He got them back. He got them back and made sure every single one of those kids got to say goodbye to their family,” said Col. Jimmy Hathaway, Cashe’s company commander.

He passed away on Nov. 8, 2005, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Sgt. 1st Class Celiz will also receive the medal posthumously. Celiz was serving his seventh deployment on July 12, 2018, assigned to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province. Celiz was leading an early-morning operation with American and partner forces to rid an area of enemy combatants when they came under attack and were pinned down. After one of the partner troops was injured,  Celiz fired a rocket from a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle at the enemy, allowing other troops to recover the wounded soldier. Once the medical helicopter arrived, Celiz put himself between the enemy and the evacuation efforts to protect the soldiers from direct fire.

Celiz “only did this because he didn't want anybody else to get hurt. And so he stayed in the gunfire until our [stretcher] team and our medic ran back to cover. And then stayed a second longer, until the helicopter started lifting off, because then he knew the helicopter had the ability to get out of there to safety. And that's when he deemed it OK for him to go back to safety,” said 2nd Lt. David White, who was a member of Celiz’s unit as a corporal and witnessed his actions that day.

Celiz was wounded while returning to safety, but he waved the helicopter off from coming back for him. He collapsed, and though the helicopter did return to rescue him, he later died of his wounds, White said.

Celiz’s widow, Katie Celiz, said she was not surprised that he waved off the helicopter.

“I’m still a little angry at him for deciding to do that, but I understood why he felt the need to do it. Chris really believed that being there with his men, protecting his men, was everything,” she told reporters Wednesday.

Master Sgt. Plumlee was a member of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) when his outpost in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, was attacked on Aug. 28, 2013. The complex attack started with a vehicle bomb that caused a 60-foot breach in the base’s perimeter wall, and 10 men dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms and suicide vests came through the opening. 

Plumlee and several other special operations soldiers drove vehicles to the breached area and engaged the enemy. Plumlee left his vehicle and repeatedly shot at the enemy with his pistol, first alone and then joining up with fellow special operators.

“Had they gotten literally—not figuratively, literally—20 feet past where Earl and the rest of the special operators stopped them, they would have turned the corner into the cantonment area, got into some of those bunkers and caused hundreds of casualties,” said Tony Bell, a now-retired sergeant major with Plumlee’s company who was at the base that day and recommended Plumlee for the Distinguished Service Cross.

Bell called Plumlee a humble person who has taken on the pressure of representing his unit and fellow special forces soldiers.

“He reacted to a chaotic situation based on years of experience and training. And he did the right thing to do because it was the right thing to do, not because someone told him,” Bell said. “It speaks immeasurably to his character.”

Challenging process

A few years after the incident in Samarra, Iraq, Cashe’s battalion commander, now-Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, wanted Cashe to be considered for the Medal of Honor. However, the campaign for him to be recognized took more than a decade, which Brito attributed in part to his efforts trying to get paperwork signed and eyewitness statements years after the deployment.

“The process works. And the process should be very rigorous. The process should take a little bit of time,” he said Wednesday.

The campaign to award Cashe the medal strengthened over the years, and included a popular Facebook page. On December 4, 2020, President Donald Trump signed a bill allowing Cashe to receive the Medal of Honor, waiving a federal law that requires the award be given within five years of the action.

Bell, who helped coordinate the documentation of the events involving Plumlee and other special operators, called the tedious nature of the Medal of Honor process “an archaic, outdated system.”

“Why are we still using these systems? Because for every Earl Plumlee, there's probably 100 other individuals, males and females, that had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world that need to be recognized. But because the system is so difficult to navigate, many people just don't even attempt it,” he said.

Cashe-White, who helped campaign for her brother to receive the medal, described the effort as an uphill battle, including moments of sadness in the beginning when it felt like it was going nowhere.

“I can't say anything against the U.S. Army. They have been there, [3rd Infantry Division] they have been there. In fact, I look around the room [and] they're here today. They have not faltered since 2005,” she said.