Three Medals of Honor, three soldiers, and three winding stories of heroism all came together at the White House on Thursday as President Joe Biden presented the nation's highest military award.
Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe died of wounds suffered from rescuing "his boys" from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq one night in 2005. His eldest sister, Kasinal Cashe-White, spent the past 15 years campaigning for Cashe to receive the medal, pushing through all setbacks and frustrations. Finally, she sat watching the president describe her brother's heroism to the nation.
Katie Celiz met her husband Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz, a teenage romantic, when they were both working in a grocery store during high school. She lost him on a battlefield in Afghanistan when, despite his wounds, he selflessly refused to board an evacuation helicopter and instead used his body as a shield against enemy fire. Years later, she too stood on the White House stage.
During the day that would demonstrate his courage back in 2013, Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee really didn't think he would survive. But there he was standing straight in his crisp uniform in the East Room on Thursday. The Green Beret faced down hordes of suicide bombers, jumping from a vehicle pistol blazing, in real-life heroism more harrowing and incredible than any Hollywood script.
"While today we honor three outstanding soldiers whose actions embody the highest ideals of selfless service, we also remember the high price our military members and their families are willing to pay on behalf of our nation," Biden said during the Medal of Honor ceremony.
All three medals go to soldiers who served in the country's post-9/11 wars. Cashe is the first Black service member to receive the Medal of Honor in either conflict.
Cashe was on a night patrol near Samarra in 2005 as the insurgency war in Iraq was still building to its bloody crescendo. The noncommissioned officer had enlisted 16 years earlier and felt a special responsibility for the soldiers in his unit.
"Some of them were older than him. Some of them were younger than him, but they were all his boys," Cashe-White said this week in a media roundtable just outside of Washington, D.C.
His Bradley Fighting Vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The vehicle burst into flames, and soldiers were trapped inside. Cashe, whose fuel-soaked uniform caught fire, climbed into the burning Bradley three times. He saved six soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.
Biden called him a soldier's soldier. "No soldier is going to be left behind on his watch. When helicopters began to arrive, he insisted that his troops be evacuated before he would go," the president said.
Cashe suffered burns over nearly 72% of his body and died three weeks later at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
His sister, Cashe-White, has spent nearly all the years since believing that her brother would one day receive the Medal of Honor for what he did that night. When the word finally came, it was a sudden jolt, like a tire erupting. "This time it was a blowout like, 'Oh, my God,' so it was a good thing," she said.
She created a Facebook page to advocate for the medal, and found support and solace with the soldiers he saved. They still call to lift her up and give news of their lives.
"Someone has a kid, and they say, 'I wouldn't have been able to have this child if it hadn't been for your brother and his actions,'" said Cashe-White, who is now considering a foundation in her brother's name. "I mean, this memory will always be with me. I just want this memory to be with everybody else."
Chris Celiz's memory is also now written into the annals of U.S. military history. Katie Celiz and her 11-year-old daughter Shannon stood on the stage Thursday without him, there in the East Room with Biden as a soldier listed his acts of heroism.
Those moments during a vicious firefight in Paktia province, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2018 saved members of his team and an aircrew, but they left his family without a husband and father. His decision to refuse evacuation to ensure the safety of troops in a helicopter is still difficult for his wife.
"I'm still a little angry at him for deciding to do that, but I understood why he felt the need to do it," Katie Celiz told reporters this week.
Celiz was on his fifth deployment with the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, when his unit came under attack. They were pinned down, and Celiz purposely exposed himself to enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire, allowing the team to shift positions.
A medevac flight also came under fire, and Celiz placed himself between the enemy fire and the crew in the cockpit, protecting them and allowing the helicopter to depart. He was shot and mortally wounded as it was lifting off.
Years earlier, before 9/11 and his military service, Celiz and Katie were two high school students who worked at the same grocery store in the South Carolina low country. During her shifts, Katie's jacket would mysteriously go missing from its hanger, until she caught Celiz wearing it in the parking lot one day.
"The next day, I went to go get my jacket and it was finally there, and inside the coat pockets were rose petals," Katie Celiz said. "I just felt blessed that I got to have the years that I had with Chris."
Biden said Celiz's legacy lives on in his teammates. "Thank you for sharing your dad with our country, Shannon. We'll never forget the debt that we owe you and your whole family," he said.
Plumlee alone will have the privilege of wearing the Medal of Honor. He was preparing for another deployment when he got word he would be receiving the highest military honor, and joining the pantheon of its greatest heroes.
"I was initially terrified at the speed at which the award process kind of came together. The wait didn't bother me necessarily," Plumlee said this week. "All that scrutiny and then to have the award approved later, I just think really validates it."
A 400-pound car bomb blew a 60-foot hole in the perimeter wall of Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2013, just as Plumlee was outside getting a photo of the members of his unit. Ten fighters wearing Afghan National Army uniforms and suicide vests poured through the gaping breach.
Plumlee and fellow soldiers raced to the site of the complex attack in a vehicle. The driver pulled in front of wounded teammates to provide cover, while Plumlee used his body to shield the driver and jumped out, charging the fighters and shooting with only his pistol.
He found cover and killed two fighters, then kept pushing forward alone.
"I absolutely thought that I was going to die," Plumlee said this week.
He and other troops mounted a counterattack amid intense fighting. Plumlee ran to a wounded soldier, carrying him to safety and providing first aid. He and a group of U.S. and coalition troops were eventually able to overcome the attackers and secure the base.
"This recognition has been too long in coming, delayed for you and your family as well," Biden said, acknowledging the Army's initial decision to decline the Medal of Honor. "And no one, no one, will ever forget how you sprang into action when the enemy attacked our base."
Plumlee said the medal is really a recognition of his whole team and what they did during that 2013 attack. As for how the Medal of Honor and its prestige may change his life and career, he maintains the same type of stoic resolve he showed in the face of battlefield horrors.
"Obviously, it would be fairly difficult to do a lot of jobs and missions that Special Forces does bringing the kind of recognition that this award carries," Plumlee said. "But you know, the Army has lots of jobs, and somebody's got to do all of them, so I guess I'll find work somewhere."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.