In the waning days of summer 2013, Taliban insurgents launched a spectacular attack on a coalition military base in Afghanistan. A 400-pound car bomb rocked the eastern side of the installation, and about 10 enemy attackers armed with suicide vests, rifles, hand grenades and grenade launchers poured through a shattered wall.
Among those to respond was Staff Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee, a former reconnaissance Marine and Green Beret with the Army’s 1st Special Forces Group. He and some of the other troops who fought to protect Forward Operating Base Ghazni engaged in a fierce firefight with insurgents. Enemy attackers were no more than 20 feet away during portions of the Aug. 28 fight, according to military documents describing the event.
The battle yielded numerous awards for those who fought off the attack. But it is the award that was denied to Plumlee — the Medal of Honor — that has drawn attention on Capitol Hill and from the Defense Department Inspector General’s office.
Plumlee was recommended for the Medal of Honor by the head of a Special Operations task force in Afghanistan, Army Col. Patrick B. Roberson, a decision that was backed by senior generals in the field. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, then the top U.S. general in Afghanistan and since nominated to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Plumlee’s actions as “truly extraordinary.”
But Plumlee ultimately received the Silver Star — considered two levels below the Medal of Honor — in a May 1 ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. As he was being considered for the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) launched an investigation into whether Plumlee illegally tried to sell a rifle scope online. The investigation yielded no charges, but the Army’s denial has prompted allegations that service leaders only want squeaky-clean soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor.
Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who has testified before Congress on valor issues, said that if the Army CID investigation played a role in Plumlee not receiving the Medal of Honor, that’s a problem. The award is supposed to recognize heroism on the battlefield, not a soldier’s lifestyle at home, he said.
“If they’re cherrypicking their Medal of Honor recipients, and I suspect they are, it’s just not right,” Sterner said. “They’ve lost their sense of heraldry.”
The case comes to light as the Pentagon puts the finishing touches on a year-long review of the awards system that examined in part how the services honor heroism in combat. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is expected to receive recommendations from the study soon. The review, called for by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, is expected to assess if the services always provide equal recognition for different troops who perform similar acts of valor.
Active-duty troops and veterans groups have complained for years that there have been far too few Medal of Honor recipients in the Iraq and Afghan wars when compared to previous conflicts. Critics complain that there is too much caution in the system, and that the rules for honoring battlefield bravery should be applied uniformly.
A narrative of Plumlee’s actions provided to The Post credits him with rushing to the site of the car bomb blast near the base’s airfield in an unarmored pickup truck. The vehicle took repeated enemy fire, including a 30mm grenade that hit the vehicle’s front passenger-side headlight, but didn’t explode.
Plumlee left the vehicle, but wasn’t immediately able to get his 7.62mm semi-automatic rifle to work. He drew a pistol and fired at several insurgents, and killed one of them with a hand grenade, prompting the suicide vest he was wearing to explode. As he continued to fire, suicide vests on two more insurgents also detonated, the narrative said.
Under withering enemy fire, Plumlee provided suppressing fire to allow other Americans to take cover, and then reloaded his weapon while shielded by an electrical box, the narrative said. He opened fire on two more insurgents, causing a third enemy suicide vest to detonate and pepper him and another Green Beret with fragmentation from the grenade.
Plumlee opened fire on yet another insurgent with a suicide vest, and noticed Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis, 24, and a Polish officer moving toward him. The suicide vest detonated, mortally wounding Ollis, the narrative said. The Polish officer survived.
Plumlee braved enemy fire immediately afterward and applied tourniquets, the narrative said. He then directed a civilian and a U.S. soldier nearby to drive the wounded to a surgical team on base. Plumlee and three other coalition troops proceed to sweep the area to make sure it was clear of additional enemy fighters.
Plumlee was nominated for the Medal of Honor in November 2013, two months after the battle. His case received a positive recommendation from numerous generals, according to military documents. They include Dunford, then-Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, recently selected to become the next Army chief of staff; and Maj. Gen. A. Scott Miller, now the commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.
Miller wrote that Plumlee’s heroism “exceeded any normal expectations. ” Milley characterized Plumlee’s actions as “clear valor above and beyond the call of duty with complete disregard for his own safety,” and Dunford wrote that Plumlee’s actions “clearly meet the standard” for the Medal of Honor.
But it was never approved. Army Secretary John M. McHugh signed off on a Silver Star for Plumlee on March 12 after a panel overseen by the Army’s Human Resources Command and known as the Senior Decorations Board recommended that the higher award not be approved, said Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman.
“The board’s recommendation was reviewed by Army senior leadership, who overwhelmingly agreed with the [the board’s] recommendation of the Silver Star,” Smith said in an statement. “Secretary of the Army John McHugh concurred with those recommendations and approved the Silver Star.”
Smith declined to provide additional details about the case, citing a need for Plumlee to sign a privacy waiver. Plumlee and Dunford, the the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, also declined to comment. The Pentagon announced Monday that McHugh will step down by down by November after about six years of service as Army secretary, but there is no indication it is related to Plumlee’s case.
The case has angered Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R.Calif.), a frequent critic of McHugh’s. In a May 19 letter to Defense Department Inspector General Jon T. Rymer, the congressman said he was concerned that top Army officials use Army CID as a cudgel to punish soldiers.
“In Plumlee’s case, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received full support and approval, with the exception of the Secretary of the Army, who downgraded his award to a Silver Star following a questionable CID investigation,” Hunter wrote.
Hunter tied Plumlee’s case to that of two other soldiers: Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a Green Beret officer who is under investigation by the Army after raising concerns about U.S. hostage policy on Capitol Hill, and Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, who was investigated for the alleged unlawful killing of a suspected Taliban bomb maker in Afghanistan in 2010.
No charges were brought against Golsteyn, but he faces an administrative hearing later this month that could result in him being thrown out of the Army. Army investigative documents obtained by The Post said he admitted to killing an unarmed insurgent during a CIA polygraph test needed to take a job with the agency.
“Based on these cases, in addition to others I am willing to discuss, I ask that you review CID’s actions to ensure the Army itself is not abusing its investigations process to retaliate against soldiers or justify its actions/outcomes,” Hunter wrote.
Rymer wrote back three days later, saying the congressman’s concerns are currently under review. A spokesman for Rymer, Bridget Serchak, declined to comment.
Hunter’s office provided the correspondence between the congressman and the inspector general and documents from Plumlee’s valor case to The Post, saying the situation deserves additional scrutiny. Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, said Plumlee was investigated by the Army for the possible misappropriation of military equipment after he tried to sell a rifle scope that he had been given as a gift by a contractor overseas.
No criminal charges were filed and it was determined that the optic was not a controlled item, Kasper said. A letter of caution was placed in Plumlee’s administrative file, but later expunged, Kasper added.
“Plumlee showed a level of courage that compelled his chain of command, all the way through General Dunford as the Afghanistan commander, to not just agree, but to resoundingly support the nomination for the top valor award. That says something,” Kasper said. “It also says something that John McHugh, the Army secretary, appears to have disagreed with it on the basis that he could because he’s the Army secretary.”
Smith, the Army spokeswoman, disagreed with the characterization that the award was downgraded to a Silver Star. But documentation provided to The Post shows that a box in Plumlee’s file was checked “downgrade to,” filled in with “Silver Star” and signed by Lt. Col. Wil B. Neubauer, the chief of the Army Awards and Decorations Branch. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The attack occurred on a base housing a provincial reconstruction team and American and Polish troops. Ollis, 24, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, a Polish soldier and at least four Afghan policemen and three civilians were killed, according to media accounts at the time. Numerous civilians and service members were wounded.
Ollis was killed while shielding a Polish lieutenant from a suicide bomber during the attack, and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions in October 2013.
In February 2014, two other soldiers, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Colbert and Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Busic, also received Silver Stars for their actions during the attack. They were part of a contingent of 12 soldiers from 1st Special Forces Group that received a variety of awards for actions in the attack.
Plumlee’s award was held back at the time, but a Stars and Stripes story then noted that he was under consideration for the Medal of Honor.