Valor, honor, integrity — even a soldier’s rank — came into play during consideration of awarding the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee.
In August 2013, Taliban insurgents launched a fierce attack on a coalition forward operating base in Afghanistan. A 400-pound car bomb breached a wall and 10 enemy attackers armed with suicide vests, rifle hand grenades and grenade launchers poured through the wall. Then a Staff Sgt., Plumlee, a Green Beret with the Army’s 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), was among those who engaged the Taliban fighters. Enemy attackers were no more than 20 feet away during portions of the battle, according to military documents describing the event. Plumlee was credited with killing several attackers at point-blank range, using both small arms and hand grenades.
Several soldiers earned awards after the battle. But it’s the award that was denied to Plumlee — the Medal of Honor — that drew the attention of the Defense Department Inspector General’s office. Even though Plumlee was recommended for the Medal of Honor by the head of a Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan, he didn’t receive the nation’s highest military honor for heroism. Last month, Plumlee instead was awarded the Silver Star Medal, which is two notches below the Medal of Honor.
While under consideration for the Medal of Honor, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command looked into an allegation that Plumlee illegally tried to sell a rifle scope online. The allegation was not substantiated. The Washington Post, which first reported this story, suggested that service leaders only want squeaky-clean soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor. The Inspector General’s findings provide a unique glimpse into just how subjective decisions surrounding awards for valor can be. The Inspector General concluded there was no evidence that anyone used the CID investigation to downgrade the Medal of Honor recommendation. The report provided new details about how the decision was reached. In Afghanistan, the Medal of Honor recommendation received approval from senior generals including Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford who is now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army Gen. Mark Milley who later became Commanding General, Forces Command at Fort Bragg and is now Army Chief of Staff.
The issue was taken up by the service’s Senior Army Decorations Board with two three-star generals and the top enlisted soldier in the service (the Sergeant Major of the Army) serving as voting members. Two of the board members recommended the Silver Star Medal, while another recommended the Distinguished Service Cross, one notch below the Medal of Honor, as more appropriate. One of the voting members said his decision not to recommend the Medal of Honor came down in large part to one thing: Plumlee’s rank. A then-staff sergeant, Plumlee was expected to perform as a leader rather than “a private who would be seized by the moment and take extremely valorous and courageous action,” one board member said, according to the report. The awarding of the Silver Star Medal was eventually agreed upon by the board and received a positive recommendation from Gen. Raymond Odierno who was Chief of Staff of the Army. Army Secretary John McHugh approved the recommendation. Sgt. 1st Class Plumlee received the Silver Star Medal on May 1.