A year after a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Special Forces soldier was denied the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top award for valor in combat, a congressman has appealed to the new Army secretary to review the case.
Army Secretary Eric Fanning was sworn in as the service’s top civilian leader last week and almost immediately received a letter from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., asking if he would review the case of Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee. The Green Beret soldier was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his role in repelling a brutal ambush in Afghanistan in 2013 and received recommendations for the prestigious award from several of the military’s most powerful officers, but was ultimately denied last year by then-Army Secretary John McHugh. Plumlee instead received the Silver Star, which is two levels below the Medal of Honor in recognizing combat heroism.
The case has been investigated by the Defense Department inspector general’s office and pressed by Hunter, who became a vociferous critic of McHugh in his last year in office. Hunter is looking to resurrect Plumlee’s case now in part by noting that McHugh chose to approve the lower award after learning that Plumlee faced a criminal investigation in the Army for allegedly selling a rifle scope online illegally. That raised questions about whether the service wants its top awards to go to only those who have a sparkling overall record. Plumlee has since been cleared of any charges.
“As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and having worked many valor cases, I can state that Plumlee’s actions most certainly meet or exceed the criteria for the MoH,” Hunter wrote in a May 19 letter to Fanning. “Further, I encourage you to compare his actions to other MoH recipients — I am confident that you will agree that Plumlee’s actions are significantly underrepresented by the Silver Star award.”
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, said the service has received Hunter’s letter and “will respond accordingly.” He declined any additional comment. Plumlee could not be reached for comment.
The inspector general examined the case at the request last fall of Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, and determined that McHugh followed all Army rules in awarding the Silver Star, according to a copy of a May 18 letter from the inspector general’s office to Hunter, newly obtained by The Washington Post. But the IG also found that while senior commanders in the field recommended the Medal of Honor — often the largest hurdle to getting approval — the Army’s Senior Army Decorations Board at Fort Knox, Ky., suggested March 28, 2014, that a Silver Star was more appropriate.
The IG found no evidence that officials on the decorations board knew at the time about the investigation by Army Criminal Investigation Command. Plumlee’s brigade commander gave him an administrative letter of reprimand Oct. 20, 2014, for undisclosed misconduct in connection with the rifle scope case, but nonetheless advocated for his getting the Medal of Honor afterward, according to the letter from the IG to Hunter. McHugh decided against that in March 2015, and the service awarded Plumlee the Silver Star two months later.
The new letter from the inspector general’s office to Hunter said that Plumlee told investigators he did not feel cheated by not getting the Medal of Honor and had “no real expectations” about which valor award he might receive. But Plumlee acknowledged that others he serves with believe the criminal investigation “played a significant role in the award recommendation process.” A criminal background check of all potential Medal of Honor recipients is carried out by the military, according to the IG’s letter to Hunter.
Plumlee, a former reconnaissance Marine, was an Army staff sergeant Aug. 28, 2013, when about a dozen insurgents launched an attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. It was initiated with a 400-pound car bomb that battered the eastern side of the installation, allowing enemy attackers to rush onto the base with suicide vests, rifles, grenades and other weapons.
Plumlee had a leading role in blunting the attack, braving enemy fire repeatedly after rushing to the site of the blast in an unarmored pickup truck. It was hit with a 30mm rocket-propelled grenade along the way, but miraculously did not explode. Plumlee exited his vehicle afterward and killed several attackers using his pistol and a hand grenade after his 7.62mm assault rifle wouldn’t work, according to a narrative of his actions that day, obtained by The Washington Post.
From there, Plumlee provided suppressing fire to allow fellow Americans to take cover. At least four insurgents detonated suicide vests during the attack, with one peppering Plumlee and another Special Forces soldier with fragments from the explosion. Plumlee continued to brave enemy fire afterward to apply tourniquets after a suicide vest wounded Army Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis, 24, who ultimately died of his injuries, and a Polish officer, who survived.
Plumlee was nominated for the Medal of Honor about three months later. As his nomination package made its way through the approval process, it received positive recommendations from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, who is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; then-Army Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, who is now the four-star Army chief of staff; and then-Army Maj. Gen. A. Scott Miller, who is now believed to be the three-star commander of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command.
Dunford, the top commander for all U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, wrote that Plumlee’s actions “clearly meet the standard” for the Medal of Honor.
Plumlee, a member of JBLM’s 1st Special Forces Group, spoke with pride during his Silver Star ceremony last year about the final moments of the incident, in which he and three fellow soldiers swept through the area to make sure the base was clear of insurgents.
“We were moving as a really aggressive, synced up stack, moving right into the chaos,” Plumlee said, according to an Army news release. “It was probably the proudest moment of my career. Just to be with those guys, at that time, on that day, was just awesome.”