Tucked inside the newly released final version of the next defense budget is a provision that would enable four soldiers to receive the nation's highest combat honor -- including a Korean War veteran, a Vietnam veteran, a living veteran of the war in Afghanistan and fallen Iraq War legend Alwyn Cashe.
The conference report for the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 202, released Thursday night, waives the five-year limit between the acts of valor and approval of the Medal of Honor for retired Col. Ralph Puckett; Specialist 5th Class Dwight Birdwell; Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee; and Cashe, a sergeant first class.
Nominations for these soldiers would still need to be approved by the defense secretary and the president to authorize them to receive the medal.
Each of the men named in the bill has a unique story of heroism.
Puckett, now 93, commanded the Eight Army Ranger Company in Korea as a first lieutenant, and proved his mettle in 1950 by holding a strategic position, Hill 205 near Unsan, against tremendous odds. With 51 men, he captured the objective and held off six counterattacks over a span of two days, despite sustaining multiple wounds himself.
"Detecting that his company was about to be overrun and forced to withdraw, he ordered his men to leave him behind so as not to endanger their withdrawal," his citation states. "Despite his protests, he was dragged from the hill to a position of safety."
Puckett received the Distinguished Service Cross for these actions, and would later be named an honorary colonel in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Birdwell proved himself a hero in 1968 while serving with C Troop, 3d Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. When his tank commander sustained serious wounds near Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Birdwell stepped up and took command of the vehicle, delivering M-60 machine gun fire until the weapon could no longer shoot.
"With complete disregard for his own safety, he then ran through the hail of enemy fire to get ammunition from other damaged vehicles and distributed it to his comrades," his Silver Star medal citation states. "He then aided in the evacuation of wounded men. His valorous actions contributed immeasurably to the success of the mission."
Now 72, Birdwell was recommended for the Medal of Honor at the time, according to news reports, but never received it.
Plumlee's act of bravery took place most recently, as did the Army's decision to pass up awarding him the Medal of Honor in favor of a lesser award. A member of Operation Detachment Alpha 1434 (ODA-1434), 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Plumlee was deployed to Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan, when the base was attacked with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and nine heavily armed insurgents.
"During the attack, Sergeant First Class Plumlee repeatedly engaged the enemy at close range, was wounded by a detonating suicide vest, risked his life to bring another Soldier to safety and provide first aid, all while continually putting himself in the line of fire in order to prevent the assault from penetrating the perimeter of the FOB," his Silver Star citation reads.
Plumlee was nominated for the Medal of Honor by his commander, but documents obtained in 2016 by the Washington Post show the members of the Senior Army Decorations Board voted against awarding it to him, citing among other things his senior rank and the leadership demands it entailed.
However, a key advocate for Plumlee's Medal of Honor case was then-Lt. Gen. James McConville, then the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. He's now chief of staff of the Army, meaning Plumlee's case may have a strong chance for review.
Plumlee in 2016 discussed his feelings about being denied the medal in an interview with the Post.
"I kind of have mixed emotions about it," Plumlee told the paper. "I kind of have a lot of trust in the system, but if somebody says it's broken, maybe it is. But I'm always leery of decisions like this getting reversed."
Cashe's Medal of Honor case has seen the most momentum of the four over the last year. The 35-year-old soldier died in November 2005 of burns sustained weeks prior when he pulled soldiers out of a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq.
A breakthrough in a 15-year fight to secure the Medal of Honor for Cashe came in August, when then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote a letter to lawmakers saying he supported the award. While Cashe posthumously received the Silver Star, procedural hurdles including witnesses and incomplete evidence -- since addressed -- thwarted previous attempts to recognize him with a higher award.
Cashe's acknowledgement in the NDAA text is largely pro forma, as a separate bill that would waive the time limit on his award cleared Congress Nov. 10.
The lawmakers who have championed the award for Cashe are now urging the Defense Department to renew efforts to recommend him for the Medal of Honor.
The NDAA and the waivers it contains are not yet law; it still must be signed by President Donald Trump, who has threatened to veto it over unrelated matters.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.