The 2021 defense budget included four names that had been granted a waiver, enabling them to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor under fire. Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe was of those four men. But halfway into the year, his family has still to receive the medal.
Cashe deserves the Medal of Honor because of his extraordinary bravery while under fire, disregarding the incredible pain he must have felt as he saved the lives of others.
On October 17, 2005, Cashe was serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. In the evening hours of that fateful day, 1st Platoon, in which Cashe was serving as the platoon sergeant, departed its forward operations base for a route clearance in the city of Daliaya. The American troops were huddled inside their Bradley Fighting Vehicles, keeping watch for any suspicious activity. The Iraqi insurgent and foreign fighters in the area had started to increasingly rely on improvised explosive devices, rather than direct engagements.
Cashe had elected to be in the gunner position in the lead Bradley. As the American column motored down the route, Cashe’s Bradley struck a pressure-detonated improvised explosive device. The blast ruptured the fuel cell, spilling fuel everywhere and lighting the Bradley on fire. Drenched in fuel, Cashe had been wounded by the initial blast but had managed to escape the burning armored personnel carrier by the gunner’s hatch. What he did next earned him immortality.
Cashe ran back in the burning Bradley and helped the driver, who was in fire, escape, then extinguishing the flames. Six Americans and one Iraqi translator were still in the Bradley.
Cashe’s Silver Star citation, which has been recommended for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor, speaks for itself:
“Without regard for his personal safety, Sergeant First Class Cashe rushed to the back of the vehicle, reaching into the hot flames and started pulling out his soldiers. The flames gripped his fuel soaked uniform. Flames quickly spread all over his body. Despite the terrible pain, Sergeant First Class Cashe placed the injured soldier on the ground and returned to the burning vehicle to retrieve another burning soldier; all the while, he was still on fire. A crew from a trail Bradley arrived within moments and assisted with CASEVAC. During all this and with severe burns, Sergeant First Class Cashe bravely continued to take control of the chaos. Within minutes, the company First Sergeant was on the scene and began to evacuate the seriously injured soldiers.
“Sergeant First Class Cashe stayed a hero through it all. His injuries were the worst as he suffered form [sic] 2d and 3d degree burns over 72% of his body. Sergeant First Class Cashe’s heroic actions saved the lives of six of his beloved soldiers. He is truly deserving of this award. His actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism and reflect distinct credit upon himself, Task Force LIBERTY and the United States Army.”
One of the Air Force doctors who treated Cashe went on and wrote a moving letter to his family afterward. The letter was then published by the Air Force. The following words were written just shy of a few hours after Cashe saved six men from certain death, willingly sacrificing his own body in the process.
“I met a hero last night. I did not realize it at the time, but he is the closest thing to a hero that I likely will ever meet,” Air Force Major Mark Rasnake of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group wrote.
“This is a place where the word ‘hero’ is tossed around day in and day out, so much so that you sometimes lose sight of its true meaning… We have cheapened it. We use it to describe football players and politicians. We even use it derisively at times to describe people we think are being too eager or self-promoting. It is even thrown about too cheaply over here when people describe groups of us just doing our jobs as ‘American Heroes.'”
“Most of us will serve our time here with pride without ever truly earning that title. The man I met last night deserves to be called Hero. Years from now, will his friends remember what he did last night? Will I?”
In total, 10 soldiers were wounded, while the Iraqi translator died. In rushing to the aid of his brothers-in-arms and directly saving six men, Cashe suffered horrific wounds. Although he was evacuated, he would succumb to them just a few weeks later.
Why SFC Alwyn Cashe Deserves the Medal of Honor
In the past, some awards, even Medals of Honor, have arguably been given for political reasons. There is no better way to distract and placate public opinion than by recognizing the valor of the troops involved in a campaign or operation gone south.
But what are the criteria for receiving the Medal of Honor? What exactly does it take for a young man or woman in uniform to qualify for the nation’s highest award for valor under fire?
The award standards for the Medal of Honor have changed a few times since the its inception in 1862. The changing criteria are reflected in the number of Medal of Honors awarded in different conflicts. To put it simply, receiving the medal has been made progressively harder as time pressed on.
For example, from the 3,527 total Medals of Honor awarded, 1,523 were earned during the Civil War, 426 during the Indian Wars, 110 during the Spanish-American War, 80 during the Philippine Insurrection, and then 59 during the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Conversely, just 126 Medals were awarded during World War I, 472 during World War II, 146 during the Korean War, and 262 during the Vietnam War. From 1993 onward, only 27 Medals have been awarded, despite the almost continuous engagement of U.S. troops in conflicts. The Pentagon established the current criteria used for the medal as the Vietnam War has heating up in 1963.
To earn the Medal today, a service member has to conspicuously distinguish him or herself by bravery and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while risking their life. The actions that qualify fall into three categories of engagements: First, a troop must be engaged in an action against an enemy of the U.S.; or second, he must be engaged in a military operation against an opposing foreign force; or third, he must be serving with a friendly foreign force that is engaged in armed conflict against another foreign force the U.S. isn’t at war with.
The recommendation package requires at least two sworn eyewitness accounts, battlefield forensics, and as much compelling evidence about the action as possible. A Medal of Honor recommendation needs to be approved at every level before reaching the president. By Federal Statute, Medal of Honor recommendations must have been submitted within three years of the action, and the award must be given within five years. Only an Act of Congress can waive these time limits.
During the action in question, Cashe undoubtedly risked his life, suffering horrific burns in the majority of his body. He didn’t have to go back to save the driver, and he certainly didn’t have to go back time after time while one fire to save the rest of his men. There is no doubt that Cashe distinguished himself by bravery and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, and his unfortunate death proves he did so at significant risk to his own life.
His leadership and imperturbability after the action were also important. Insurgents in Iraq were known to ambush U.S. and Coalition forces with improvised explosive devices before initiating an attack on the disoriented unit that had been struck. This is an often-ignored part of Cashe’s actions that day—his leadership and coolness after the incident made his unit a tough target and helped ensure they maintained their combat vigilance.
Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe earned the Medal of Honor through his actions. It now falls to the leadership to recognize that and award him what is his due.