After a long effort by his family, a sergeant first class who died after pulling fellow troops out of a burning vehicle in Iraq in 2005 will receive the Medal of Honor, along with two other heroic soldiers who served in Afghanistan, the White House announced Friday.
Alwyn Cashe will be awarded the highest military honor on Thursday in a White House ceremony that includes Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz, who died after protecting an evacuation helicopter, and Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, who risked his life fighting off a horde of suicide bombers overrunning his base.
Cashe is the first Black service member to receive the medal from either conflict. The Army initially denied Plumlee's nomination in 2015, according to The Washington Post. President Joe Biden will make the official presentation during the ceremony next week.
"These awards are long awaited and undoubtedly well deserved for such displays of heroism and courage," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday.
The medal for Cashe especially has been a long time coming after his surviving sister and supporters spent years lobbying. The award was finally supported last year by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and had been teed up for a possible announcement at the end of the Trump administration, only to be delayed months longer.
Cashe, 35, was a platoon sergeant, originally from Florida, who had enlisted in 1989 when the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was commanding came under fire during a nighttime patrol in Salah Ad Din Province, Iraq, in 2005.
An improvised explosive device, or IED, hit the Bradley, rupturing its fuel tank and setting it aflame. Cashe's own uniform was soaked in fuel as he and another soldier pulled the driver, who was on fire, out of the vehicle.
They managed to smother the flames on the driver, but Cashe's uniform caught fire, causing "severe second- and third-degree burns covering the majority of his body," according to the White House account.
Despite the terrible burns and enemy fire on his position, Cashe went back into the burning Bradley twice, first for four soldiers who were trapped, and again to find two other troops who were still missing. Then he made sure his fellow soldiers received medical care.
"When medical evacuation helicopters began to arrive, he selflessly refused evacuation until all of the other wounded soldiers were first evacuated," the White House said in the announcement of the medals.
He died of his injuries several weeks later.
Celiz, 32, was the leader of a special operations unit composed of partner forces and the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, when he was on a 2018 mission to clear an area in Paktiya Province where enemy attacks had been staged.
A large enemy force attacked the unit, and Celiz exposed himself to machine gun and small arms fire to man a "heavy weapons system," the White House said.
The move shifted momentum in the firefight, giving his unit the upper hand, and allowed the Rangers to move to cover and treat a wounded member of the partner forces.
When a medical evacuation helicopter arrived, it was hit with sustained enemy fire. "Celiz made a conscious effort to ensure his body acted as a physical shield to his team carrying the casualty and the crew of the aircraft," according to the announcement.
Celiz continued guarding the helicopter and its pilot from the gunfire with his body, repeatedly repositioning himself in the open, even after the rest of his team took cover. He was mortally wounded as the helicopter took off.
"Fully aware of his own injury, but understanding the peril to the aircraft from the intense enemy machine gun fire, Sgt. 1st Class Celiz motioned to the aircraft to depart rather than remain to load him," the White House said.
Plumlee, a Green Beret, was serving as a weapons sergeant at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan, when a vehicle IED blew a 60-foot hole in the base's perimeter wall.
"Ten insurgents wearing Afghan National Army uniforms and suicide vests poured through the breach," according to the account. Plumlee and a group of special operators raced toward the scene.
Their vehicles immediately came under fire. Plumlee used his body to shield the driver while jumping from the vehicle, drawing his pistol and charging into what was described as a superior enemy force.
He killed an insurgent attacker with a grenade and detonated another's suicide vest by shooting it. Plumlee charged into the fray, breaking cover and fighting in close combat. Another suicide vest detonated about 22 feet away.
Plumlee joined a group of U.S. and Polish soldiers who mounted a counterattack. He attacked another insurgent who threw a grenade and then detonated his suicide vest, and then engaged another attacker coming from the rear, who detonated his vest and mortally wounded a U.S. soldier.
"Plumlee, with complete disregard for his own safety, ran to the wounded soldier, carried him to safety, and rendered first aid," the White House said. "He then organized three Polish soldiers for defense, methodically cleared the area, remained in a security posture, and continued to scan for any remaining threats."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.