“The final award authority for the Medal of Honor rests solely with the President,” Esper said in the letter, dated Aug. 24. “My favorable determination in no way presumes what the President’s decision might be.”
Cashe, 35, of Oviedo, Fla., would be the first African American recipient of the award for combat valor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has long been seen within the military community as one of the great heroes of the Iraq War, and he was recommended this year as a potential new eponym for one of 10 Army installations that are named after Confederate military officers who fought to preserve slavery.
The Medal of Honor approval process is considered secretive, with defense officials rarely commenting on a case before full approval. Esper sent the letter because there is a five-year time limit to award the Medal of Honor from the date of a service member’s heroic actions, and Cashe’s occurred nearly 15 years ago, on Oct. 17, 2005.
“Before we can take further action with this nomination, Congress must waive this time limit,” Esper wrote. “Once legislation is enacted authorizing the President of the United States to award, if he so chooses, the Medal of Honor to SFC, I will provide my endorsement to the President.”
Similar congressional waivers have been granted in other cases, and approving one is not expected to face resistance.
Esper sent his letter in response to correspondence from Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) and Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), who wrote the Pentagon in October urging Esper to upgrade a Silver Star — the third-highest award for valor in combat — that Cashe had received for his actions in Iraq.
Murphy, whose district includes Cashe’s hometown, said in a statement Friday that she is “overjoyed” that the defense secretary has determined that Cashe’s actions merit the Medal of Honor. She called him “a hero in the purest and most profound sense.”
“I will work with my colleagues to swiftly grant the President the authority he needs to provide this valiant soldier with the recognition he earned,” she said.
Waltz, who served in the Army, called Cashe a hero who demonstrated “extraordinary courage."
“He without a doubt deserves our nation’s highest honor — and I’m very glad Secretary Esper and our Department of Defense agree and recognize his heroic actions,” Waltz said.
Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL officer who was wounded in Afghanistan, said he will continue to push for Cashe’s recognition.
“Heroes are all around us, but certain heroes stand out,” Crenshaw said. “One of those heroes is Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe."
Cashe’s sister, Kasinal, said in a phone interview Friday that she has been “walking on air” since Murphy notified her of Esper’s backing Thursday night. The award still needs presidential approval, but Cashe’s sister said she is optimistic the award will come soon.
“I’ve been assured that with the secretary of defense writing the letter, it’s just a technicality,” she said.
Cashe was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division in Samarra, Iraq, when his armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle rolled over an improvised explosive device, according to his Silver Star citation. He was slightly injured and drenched in fuel, and realized that the armored vehicle’s fuel cell had erupted and the vehicle had burst into flames.
Cashe made numerous trips into the vehicle despite suffering burns in the process.
“Without regard for his personal safety, Sergeant First Class Cashe rushed to the back of the vehicle, reaching into the hot flames and started pulling out his soldiers,” the Silver Star citation said. “The flames gripped his fuel soaked uniform. Flames quickly spread all over his body.”
Cashe continued to assist others, even after he was on fire, the citation said. He suffered burns over 72 percent of his body.
The civilian translator traveling with the soldiers was also killed. Ten soldiers were injured in the incident, seven badly, according to Army accounts of the incident.
Cashe died Nov. 5, 2005, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which is known for its facility treating burns suffered in combat.
Three other soldiers — Staff Sgt. George Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Tex.; Sgt. Michael T. Robertson, 28, of Houston; and Spec. Darren Howe, 21, of Beatrice, Neb. — died of injuries.
Cashe’s commanding officer, then-Col. Gary Brito, nominated Cashe for the Silver Star and later said that he did not realize the severity of the situation at the time. Brito, now a lieutenant general, has recommended Cashe for the Medal of Honor several times since, fine-tuning the nomination package.
“I don’t know that there’s much more I can do,” Brito told the Army News Service in 2014. “I’ve asked others who have provided witness statements so far to look at them and see if there’s anything else that can be recalled that was left off before. I’m not going to have anything fabricated and I’m not going to violate the integrity of the award, and I don’t want to bring any dishonor on Sgt. 1st Class Cashe or his family.”
Kasinal Cashe credited Brito with doggedly pursuing the upgrade on his own time in addition to his duties within the Army.
“He didn’t do this because he was assigned to do it,” she said. “He did it because he wanted to make right something that was wrong.”