Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee brought a pistol to a shootout in Afghanistan where his enemies carried AK-47 rifles, explosive-laden suicide vests and hand grenades.
Despite being outgunned at first, Plumlee’s side won the day.
The Army this month thanked the Green Beret for the pivotal role he played in turning back a “spectacular” attack that penetrated the defenses of his forward base in August 2013. He was awarded a Silver Star, the military’s third-highest medal for valor in combat.
His award citation credits him with saving the lives of “hundreds of soldiers, coalition partners and civilians” when he put himself in harm’s way to contain insurgents who had breached their base in southern Afghanistan by blasting a hole in its walls.
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Plumlee “heroically distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous conduct in the face of the enemy,” his citation reads.
The assault he helped stymie was one of the few times that Afghan insurgents managed to get inside a NATO base. The attackers wore Afghan army uniforms. They detonated their suicide vests when they approached U.S. soldiers.
Plumlee had never seen anything like it. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen, and it certainly doesn’t happen in that manner,” he said.
The medal was a long time coming for the 35-year-old soldier.
In February 2014, two of his peers — Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Busic and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Colbert — from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group received Silver Stars for their bravery in the same battle.
Plumlee’s recognition was delayed while military authorities debated which combat valor award to give him.
He appreciated the May 1 ceremony because it gave his family a chance to join him at JBLM’s Special Forces headquarters and to share in the award, even though it meant his mom and wife had to sit through a detailed description of the danger he faced. It included phrases such as “withering gunfire” and “ignoring enemy incoming small arms fire.”
“Mom and dad were there. My father is a retired lieutenant colonel, so he’s pretty excited,” Plumlee said. “My mom and wife, they are less excited. They’re glad for me to get an award, but they don’t like the reading of the (battle) narrative.”
The attack took place Aug. 28, 2013, while Plumlee and his teammates were in their camp at the forward base. They heard a massive explosion on the opposite side of the base and raced to it in a pickup truck.
“Everyone who showed up had been on several combat deployments and recognized the situation,” he said. “Everyone figured out the seriousness of the attack.”
Moments later, insurgents began firing rockets and mortars onto the base from three directions.
It was a bewildering scene in part because the enemy fighters had disguised themselves in the uniforms of the Afghan army.
“We didn’t shoot at them at first, but they were shooting at us,” he said. “They were either highly confused Afghan army or they were insurgents.”
Plumlee’s rifle didn’t function when he and two teammates first reached the breach point. He began his counterattack against heavily armed insurgents with his pistol.
His award citation credits him with killing or disabling at least five attackers. Three of them reportedly exploded when Plumlee’s rounds hit their suicide vests.
Colbert last year called those explosions “cinematic” in his memory. Plumlee could find no other words to describe them.
The battle took the life of one U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis of the 10th Mountain Division. Ollis also received a Silver Star for sacrificing his life to save a Polish soldier in the shootout.
One of the suicide vests injured Plumlee, too. It threw him against a wall, damaging his spine. He also took shrapnel.
The explosion briefly knocked him unconscious. He saw Afghans closing in on him when he came to his senses and returned fire.
Plumlee did not realize how serious his injuries were for months after he came home in fall 2013. He found himself overly reliant on painkillers.
That realization led to a year and a half of physical therapy that he only recently completed. Now he has rejoined the 1st Special Forces Group and is preparing to move to a part of the unit permanently stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “They say I aged my back about 20 years.”