NATION

Medal of Honor campaign continues for black sergeant who saved troops

7-year campaign continues to seek Medal of Honor for Army sergeant who entered burning vehicle to save troops

If he had known in 2005 what he knows today, Brig. Gen. Gary Brito would have nominated Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe for the Medal of Honor.

Brito knew in 2005 that Cashe, his uniform soaked with fuel, had plunged into a burning vehicle in Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, to rescue soldiers who were on fire. But only months later did Brito, Cashe's battalion commander, learn the full details of Cashe's courage that day outside the city of Samarra.

Cashe rescued six badly burned soldiers while under enemy small-arms fire. His own uniform caught fire, engulfing him in flames. Even with second- and-third degree burns over three-fourths of his body, Cashe continue to pull soldiers out of a vehicle set ablaze when a roadside bomb ruptured a fuel tank.

Before all of those details emerged, Cashe was awarded a Silver Star, the military's third-highest award for valor, after Brito nominated him. But soon after learning more about Cashe's actions, Brito mounted an unusual Medal of Honor campaign that has continued for more than seven years.

If the latest batch of sworn statements submitted to the Army by Brito is successful, Cashe will become the first African American among 16 service members awarded the nation's highest medal for valor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Cashe, 35, died of his burns three weeks after the bomb attack. Seven of the 16 medals have been awarded posthumously.

"You don't often find truly selfless sacrifice where someone put his soldiers' welfare before his own," Brito said. "Sgt. Cashe was horribly wounded and continued to fight to save his men."

Acts of heroism in combat typically play out in a matter of seconds or minutes. But honoring those actions with a Medal of Honor often takes years — and sometimes decades — as emerging details and conflicting accounts are evaluated.

In Cashe's case, the soldiers he rescued were unable to provide accounts of his heroism because they were hospitalized in critical condition. Other details were lost in the turmoil of a war zone.

"The true impact of what he did that evening was not immediately known because of the chaos of the moment," Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, one of Cashe's commanders, wrote to the Army in support of Cashe's Medal of Honor nomination.

The Senior Army Decorations Board does not comment on Medal of Honor nominations, an Army spokeswoman said, noting that vetting such nominations takes considerable time, "with intense scrutiny every step of the way." There is no timetable for a decision.

Earlier this month, a Civil War soldier, Lt. Alonzo Cushing, was awarded a Medal of Honor by President Obama 151 years after his heroics. The president approves Medal of Honor awards after recommendations are sent up the chain of command by the decorations board.

Nine years after the Iraq bomb attack, retired Sgt. Gary Mills has no doubt that Cashe deserves the Medal of Honor. Mills was inside the stricken Bradley fighting vehicle that day. He was on fire, his hands so badly burned that he couldn't open the rear troop door to free himself and other soldiers trapped inside the flaming vehicle.

Someone opened the door from outside, Mills recalls. A powerful hand grabbed him and yanked him to safety. He later learned that the man who had rescued him was Cashe, who seconds later crawled into the vehicle to haul out the platoon's critically burned medic while on fire himself.

"Sgt. Cashe saved my life," Mills said. "With all the ammo inside that vehicle, and all those flames, we'd have all been dead in another minute or two."

Four of the six soldiers rescued later died of their wounds at a hospital. An Afghan interpreter riding in the Bradley died during the bomb attack. Cashe refused to be loaded onto a medical evacuation helicopter until all the other wounded men had been flown.

A citation proposing the Medal of Honor for Cashe reads: "SFC Cashe's selfless and gallant actions allowed the loved ones of these brave soldiers to spend precious time by their sides before they succumbed."

Cashe's sister, Kasinal Cashe White, spent three weeks at her brother's bedside at a military hospital in Texas as doctors treated his extensive burns. She knew nothing of his actions during the bomb attack until a nurse asked her, "You know your brother's a hero, don't you?"

When Cashe was able to speak, White said, his first words were: "How are my boys?" — his soldiers, she said.

Then he began weeping, she said. He told her: "I couldn't get to them fast enough."

Cashe died Nov. 8, 2005.

"My little brother lived by the code that you never leave your soldiers behind," White said. "That wasn't just something from a movie. He lived it."

White says her family hopes Cashe is awarded the medal while his mother, who is 89, is still alive.

White, Mills and Brito are part of a sustained seven-year effort to honor Cashe. They have been joined by Cashe's fellow soldiers, his commanders, two high-ranking generals and a retired drill sergeant who never met Cashe but has mounted a public campaign to draw attention to the sergeant's valor.

"This is a story that needs to be told," said Harry Conner, 62, the former drill sergeant, who runs a Facebook page, "SFC Alwyn Cashe Deserves the Medal of Honor," that has 3,700 members.

"This man allowed himself to burn to death to save his men," Conner said. "To not award him the Medal of Honor would be a terrible injustice."

Brito, who is still on active duty, says he has spent the last seven years locating soldiers and obtaining sworn statements, which he has included in the latest packet he is submitting to the Army.

One statement is from Lt. Gen. William G. Webster, Cashe's division commander, who wrote: "The pain he suffered must have been unimaginable, and yet he continued to suffer in the name of saving others. I cannot remember a story that is its equal."

Taluto, who also commanded Cashe, wrote: "In all my years of service I have yet to witness or hear of such an act of bravery."

Cashe's family and supporters say they don't know why it has taken so long for the Army to decide on the nomination, but they have not raised Cashe's race as an issue. Brito says he was not even aware that no African American has been awarded the medal in the wars following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

White says she has resisted "pulling out the race card."

"He is not just a black soldier who earned the right to the Medal of Honor," she said. "He's a soldier who happens to be black."

Brito says the decorations board has been "cooperative, responsive and professional." Providing the board with the detailed documentation required has taken years, "maybe too much time on my part," he said.

He wishes he had submitted Cashe for a Medal of Honor from the beginning, Brito said, but he has no regrets.

He was focused at the time on the fragile medical condition of Cashe and other burned soldiers. He said he spent his time keeping their families informed while trying to get his soldiers home safely.

Brito says the long, demanding process has taught him that the Medal of Honor is a singular honor that should be reserved for the rare examples of extraordinary courage personified by Cashe.

For Alwyn Cashe, "the criteria of bravery and gallantry under horrible conditions has been met," Brito said. "I'll respect whatever decision is made."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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