Earl Plumlee Was Initially Denied the Medal of Honor Because of His Rank

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Joe Biden presents Medal of Honor to Earl Plumlee.
President Joe Biden presents the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Master Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2021. (Laura Buchta/U.S. Army photo)

Staff Sgt. Earl Plumlee was a Special Forces weapons sergeant deployed to Forward Operating Base Ghazni in August 2013. He had a long military career before then, serving in the Oklahoma National Guard before graduating from high school and then joining the Marine Corps in 2000. He had even spent a year deployed to Iraq's Anbar Province as a Marine before he joined the Army Special Forces.

So when a large explosion from a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device shattered the perimeter wall at FOB Ghazni on Aug. 28, 2013, Plumlee showed no hesitation in defending the base and his fellow soldiers.

Before the smoke cleared, insurgents dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms began pouring through the 60-foot breach in FOB Ghazni's outer wall. The explosion was just the beginning of the attack. The insurgents who came through the smoke and rubble also were wearing suicide vests, carrying small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Plumlee and five other Special Forces soldiers mounted armed vehicles and drove directly toward the site of the explosion. They drove into the line of fire, positioning their vehicle between the Taliban fighters and some wounded comrades who were fighting for their lives.

Without regard for his own safety, Staff Sgt. Plumlee hopped out of the vehicle, using his body to protect its driver while drawing his sidearm. He fought off two attackers and was wounded by a detonating suicide vest before he could get to adequate cover. He killed the two insurgents in his field of fire, but at least eight were still firing on American forces.

He left his position with only his pistol and advanced on the enemy alone, finally reaching a fellow soldier behind cover after what must have seemed like hours. Under intense enemy fire, he and the other soldier, no longer alone, withdrew to join other American and coalition troops who were preparing a counterattack.

Now armed with a rifle, Plumlee moved along with the counterattack, killing an insurgent as he and his allies advanced. His next move was to run to a wounded troop, carrying him to safety and performing first aid. He rallied three more coalition soldiers to form a defensive posture and moved to clear the battleground of insurgents.

One American and one Polish soldier were killed in the attack.

The complex assault never managed to penetrate farther into the base, due to the quick reaction of the Special Forces soldiers inside and the selfless work of Plumlee, who received a promotion after the battle. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor and presented to him by President Joe Biden on Dec. 16, 2021.

Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee awarded the Silver Star Medal.
Then-Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee, assigned to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), is presented the Silver Star Medal by Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, I Corps Deputy Commanding General, during a ceremony at the 1st SFG (A), Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (U.S. Army)

It almost never happened because in the eyes of one decorations board member, Plumlee was just doing his job.

A member of the Senior Army Decorations Board believed the bar for awarding the Medal of Honor should be high for a senior non-commissioned officer, as opposed to a junior enlisted soldier, according to the 2016 Medal of Honor Award Process Review report.

"From my perspective, as [a noncommissioned officer] ... there's a certain level of leader attributes and competencies and expectation synonymous with the term ­-- and especially one who is a senior NCO, versus a private who would be seized by the moment and take extremely valorous and courageous action; there's a difference between those two," was the opinion of one board member, whose name was redacted in the report.

A Senior Army Decorations Board is comprised of three lieutenant generals from the Secretary of the Army's office, except when the nominee is enlisted. In that case, the sergeant major of the Army takes the third seat on the board. All votes count equally, and each voting member can vote to approve, disapprove, upgrade or downgrade the award.

The board received two votes for the Silver Star and one vote for a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award for heroism facing the enemy. The board member who made a distinction between private and senior NCO further explained his vote.

"One's a leader. One's a Soldier. And so when I looked at the circumstances and, although the battle was ferocious and unfortunately a couple members were killed, I just thought that it wasn't a sufficient level for the Medal of Honor, based off of the individual and the circumstances and that, I just felt there was an expectation of a leader who did a phenomenal job, that there was something more that [the nominee] needed to have done in order to, in my mind, to make a recommendation for a Medal of Honor."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran, took up the cause for Plumlee's Medal of Honor. He requested the Department of Defense report on the Army's Medal of Honor awards process and whether the Army deviated from its usual processes.

Hunter also believed the Army was punishing Plumlee for an allegation that he sold Army equipment online, a charge he was cleared of later. Hunter left Congress in 2020 amid campaign finance violations charges for which he would later be found guilty and subsequently pardoned by President Donald Trump. The Special Forces community and senior Defense Department leaders continued their push for Plumlee.

Their consistent advocacy led to a special authorization for now-Master Sgt. Plumlee's Medal of Honor in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, along with Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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