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Biden awards Medals of Honor to 3 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

President Biden presents the Medal of Honor to Army Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee for his actions in Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2013.
Evan Vucci
President Biden presents the Medal of Honor to Army Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee for his actions in Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2013.

One died after rescuing his fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq. Another was killed in Afghanistan as he used his body as a shield to protect a helicopter evacuating soldiers after a firefight. A third took on insurgents wearing suicide vests and tossing grenades in an attack on a base in Afghanistan.

All three men were awarded the Medal of Honor by President Biden at a White House ceremony Thursday.

Biden placed the medal on Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, while Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Celiz and Sergeant 1st Class Alwyn Cashe were awarded posthumously.

President Biden presents the Medal of Honor on Thursday to Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe for his actions in Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, as his widow Tamara Cashe accepts the posthumous recognition.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Biden presents the Medal of Honor on Thursday to Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe for his actions in Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, as his widow Tamara Cashe accepts the posthumous recognition.

"Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude today as we honor the unparalleled courage and commitment to duty" of the three medal recipients, Biden said.

Sergeant 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe

Cashe, who grew up in grew up in Oviedo, Fla., is the first Black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Biden called him "a soldier's soldier, who literally walked through fire for his troops."

His actions on Oct. 17, 2005 were described by the White House:

While on a night-time mounted patrol near an enemy laden village, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle which Sergeant First Class Cashe was commanding, was attacked by enemy small arms fire and an improvised explosive device which disabled the vehicle and caused it to become engulfed in flames. After extracting himself he set about extracting the driver who was trapped in the vehicle. After opening the driver's hatch, Sergeant First Class Cashe and a fellow Soldier extracted the driver, extinguished the flames on him, and moved him to a position of relative safety. During the course of extinguishing the flames on the driver and extracting him from the vehicle, Sergeant First Class Cashe's fuel soaked uniform ignited causing severe burns to his body. He then moved to the rear of the vehicle to continue in aiding his peers who were trapped in the troop compartment. 

At this time, the enemy noted his movements and began to direct their fire on his position. When another element of the company engaged the enemy, Sergeant First Class Cashe seized the opportunity and moved into the open troop door and aided four of his peers in escaping the burning vehicle. Having extracted the four Soldiers, he noticed two other Soldiers had not been accounted for and he again entered the burning vehicle to retrieve them. 

Despite the severe second and third degree burns covering the majority of his body, Sergeant First Class Cashe persevered through the pain to encourage his fellow Soldiers and ensure they received needed medical care. When medical evacuation helicopters began to arrive, he selflessly refused evacuation until all of the other wounded Soldiers were first evacuated. Sergeant First Class Cashe's heroic actions, at the cost of his life, saved the lives of his teammates.

Master Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee

Plumlee received the medal for his response to an attack in August 2013 in Afghanistan. Before placing the medal around Plumlee's neck, Biden said his recognition "has been too long in coming." Plumlee remains in the Army Special Forces.

The White House described his actions:

While deployed to Afghanistan, then-Staff Sergeant Plumlee instantly responded to a complex enemy attack that began with a massive explosion that tore a sixty-foot breach in the base's perimeter wall. Ten insurgents wearing Afghan National Army uniforms and suicide vests poured through the breach. Staff Sergeant Plumlee and five Special Operations members, intent upon defending the base, mounted two vehicles and raced toward the site of the detonation. 

The vehicles, now no longer under cover, came under effective enemy fire from the front and right. Using his body to shield the driver from enemy fire, he instinctively reacted, exiting the vehicle while simultaneously drawing his pistol and engaging an insurgent to the vehicle's right. Without cover and with complete disregard for his own safety, he advanced on the superior enemy force engaging multiple insurgents with only his pistol. Upon reaching cover, he killed two insurgents, one with a well-placed grenade and the other by detonating the insurgent's suicide vest using precision sniper fire. Again disregarding his own safety, he left cover and advanced alone against the superior enemy force engaging several combatants at close range, including an insurgent whose suicide vest exploded a mere seven meters from his position. 

Undeterred and resolute, he joined a small group of American and Polish Soldiers, who moved from cover to counter-attack the infiltrators. As the force advanced, he engaged an insurgent to his front left. The wounded insurgent threw a grenade before detonating his suicide vest. Staff Sergeant Plumlee then swung around and engaged another insurgent who charged the group from the rear. The insurgent detonated his suicide vest, mortally wounding a U.S. Soldier. Staff Sergeant Plumlee, with complete disregard for his own safety, ran to the wounded Soldier, carried him to safety, and rendered first aid.  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. 

Sergeant 1st Class Christopher A. Celiz

Celiz, of South Carolina, died of his wounds in July 2018. Biden said that Celiz was "courage made flesh." The White House described his actions:

While deployed to Afghanistan, Sergeant First Class Celiz led an operation to clear an area of enemy forces and thereby disrupt future attacks against Afghan and allied forces. When a large enemy force attacked, Sergeant First Class Celiz voluntarily exposed himself to intense enemy machine gun and small arms fire to retrieve and employ a heavy weapon system, thereby allowing U.S. and partnered forces to regain the initiative, maneuver to a secure location and begin treatment of a critically wounded partnered force member. As the medical evacuation helicopter arrived, it was immediately engaged by accurate and sustained enemy fire. 

Knowing how critical it was to quickly load the casualty, Sergeant First Class Celiz willingly exposed himself to heavy and effective enemy fire to direct and lead the evacuation.  Sergeant First Class 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. 

As the casualty was loaded and Sergeant First Class Celiz' team returned to cover, he alone remained at the aircraft, returning a high volume of fire and constantly repositioning himself to act as a physical shield to the aircraft and its crew. Sergeant First Class Celiz then placed himself directly between the cockpit and the enemy, ensuring the aircraft was able to depart. As the helicopter lifted off, Sergeant First Class Celiz was hit by enemy fire. 

Fully aware of his own injury, but understanding the peril to the aircraft from the intense enemy machine gun fire, Sergeant First Class Celiz motioned to the aircraft to depart rather than remain to load him. His selfless actions saved the life of the evacuated partnered force member and almost certainly prevented further casualties among other members of his team and the aircrew. Sergeant First Class Celiz died of wounds he received in combat on July 12, 2018 in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. 

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 17, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher A. Celiz died in 1986. He died in 2018.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.