Green Beret Denied Medal of Honor Is First Test for New Army Secretary

Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee, assigned to 1st Special Forces Group, is presented the Silver Star Medal for his actions in Afghanistan at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state in 2015. (Codie Mendenhall/U.S. Army).
Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee, assigned to 1st Special Forces Group, is presented the Silver Star Medal for his actions in Afghanistan at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state in 2015. (Codie Mendenhall/U.S. Army).

Sgt. 1St Class Earl D. Plumlee was denied the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. When Army Secretary Eric Fanning was sworn in recently as the service’s top civilian leader, he almost immediately received a letter from Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calfornia).

The Green Beret was nominated for the distinction for his role in fighting off an ambush in Afghanistan in 2013. He was recommended for the award by several of the military’s most powerful officers but was denied by then Army Secretary John McHugh. Instead, Plumlee was awarded the Silver Star which is two levels below the Medal of Honor.

The case was investigated by the Defense Department inspector’s general office. Hunter, a vocal critic of McHugh, has been pushing the case, noting that McHugh approved the lower award when he learned that Plumlee was facing a criminal investigation for illegally selling a rifle scope online. He questioned whether the service only wants people with unblemished records to receive the top award. Plumlee has been cleared of all 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, a spokesman for the Army, stated that the service received Hunter’s letter and will “respond accordingly.”

Last fall, the inspector general examined the case at the request of Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work. They determined that McHugh followed all Army rules when he awarded the Silver Star. The IG also found that senior commanders in the field recommended the Medal of Honor – this is usually the most important factor in the quest for approval for receiving the Medal of Honor. However, the Army’s Senior Army Decorations Board suggested that a Silver Star would be more appropriate.

The IG did not find that the officials on the decorations board knew about the investigation into Plumlee by the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID). His brigade commander reprimanded him in connection with the rifle scope case but still recommended him for the Medal of Honor afterwards. McHugh decided against the Medal of Honor and awarded him the Silver Star two months later.

In a letter to Hunter, the inspector general’s office said that Plumlee told them that he did not feel cheated out of the Medal of Honor and that he had no expectation as to what award he might receive. Plumlee did acknowledge that others he served with believed that the criminal investigation impacted the recommendation process. A criminal background check is performed on all potential Medal of Honor recipients, according to the letter from the IG to Hunter.

Plumlee was an Army staff sergeant on August 28, 2013 when about a dozen insurgents attacked Forward Operating Base Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. They opened a hole in the side of the base with a 400-pound car bomb and then rushed the base with suicide vests, rifles, grenades, and other weapons.

Plumlee rushed to the scene of the blast in an unarmored pickup truck that was hit with a 30mm rocket-propelled grenade on the way. Miraculously, the truck did not explode. Plumlee exited the vehicle and killed several attackers with a pistol and a grenade after his 7.62mm assault rifle wouldn’t work.

After that, Plumlee provided suppressing fire, allowing other Americans to take cover. At least four of the attackers detonated their suicide vests, one of which hit Plumlee and another Special Forces soldier with shrapnel. Plumlee braved enemy fire to apply tourniquets to Army Staff Sergeant Michael H. Ollis, 24, who eventually passed away from his injuries. He also treated a Polish office 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 U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, wrote that Plumlee’s actions clearly met the standard for the Medal of Honor.

Plumlee, a member of the 1st Special Forces Group, was proud of the final moments of the encounter when he and three fellow soldiers swept the area to make sure there were no more insurgents in the base. He spoke about those moments in his Silver Star acceptance speech. “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.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE