On October 17, 2005, Sergeant 1st Class (SFC) Alwyn Cashe of the United States Army was traveling at the head of an armored convoy in Samarra, Iraq when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. During the chaos that ensued, SFC Cashe rescued six other soldiers from the burning vehicle but was himself mortally wounded. Now, 16 years after the incident, legislation has been passed authorizing the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest award for valor in combat, to be posthumously awarded to Cashe.
Alwyn Crendall Cashe was a native of Oviedo, Florida. Upon graduating high school in 1988, Cashe enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as an infantryman. He served a tour in Iraq during the First Gulf War in 1991, and then another during Operation Iraqi Freedom during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By October 2005, the husband and father of three had been promoted to Sergeant 1st Class, and was in charge of a platoon in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. The platoon was stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) MacKenzie in Samarra, Iraq, approximately 80 miles north of Baghdad.
October 17 Incident
At 7:20 pm on the 17th of October, 2005, an armored convoy left FOB MacKenzie to conduct route clearance operations along Route Jaime, a road going through the Samarra area. Route clearance involves securing a road so that it may be used for transportation. Roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), were a common threat in the region, and it was the responsibility of convoys such as these to identify and dispose of them.
At some point, SFC Cashe took over the gunner’s position of the convoy’s lead vehicle, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley is designed to transport troops while providing its own organic covering fire from a 25mm autocannon, as well as anti-armor capabilities from its TOW missile launcher. In the rear compartment of the Bradley was a squad of U.S. troops and one Iraqi interpreter. The vehicle’s driver and commander rode in the forward compartment while Cashe, manning the autocannon, was in the turret on top of the vehicle.
They were on Route Jaime when Cashe’s Bradley struck an IED. The resulting blast ruptured the fuel cell, spraying Cashe with diesel fuel. The vehicle was immediately engulfed in flames, and Cashe exited the turret and helped the injured driver evacuate through the driver’s hatch, extinguishing flames on the driver’s body. By this time, six soldiers and the Iraqi interpreter were having difficulty evacuating the passenger compartment, which was in flames. Not content to have saved himself and his driver, Cashe entered the rear compartment and dragged multiple soldiers to safety; his diesel-soaked uniform caught fire, and the flames spread across his body, but he continued rescuing his men. In the words of his Silver Star citation, “Despite the terrible pain, Sergeant First Class Cashe placed the injured soldier on the ground and returned to the burning vehicle to retrieve another burning soldier; all the while, he was still on fire.”
By the time the scene had stabilized, the civilian interpreter had been killed and at least ten soldiers had been injured. Cashe had suffered 2nd or 3rd degree burns to 72% of his body, but according to some reports, he still refused to be evacuated until the other serious casualties had been taken care of.
Cashe was evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. 22 days after the incident, on November 8, 2005, SFC Alwyn C. Cashe died of his wounds. He was 35 years old.
In addition to Cashe and the civilian interpreter, three other soldiers died of wounds following the October 17 incident: Staff Sergeant George Alexander Jr., age 34, of Killeen, Texas; Sergeant Michael Robertson, age 28, of Houston, Texas; and Specialist Darren Howe, age 21, of Beatrice, Nebraska.
Cashe was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the U.S. military’s third highest award for valor in combat. The post office in his hometown of Oviedo, Florida has been renamed in Cashe’s honor, and an Army Reserve center in Sanford, Florida also bears his name.
Medal of Honor
Back in 2005, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, Gary Brito, nominated Cashe for the Silver Star. But many of the witnesses had been evacuated and statements were incomplete. Since then, having learned the full extent of Cashe’s actions that day, Brito has been pushing for the Silver Star to be upgraded to a Medal of Honor. However, the five-year statute of limitations on awarding the Medal of Honor after the incident expired without an upgrade.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award that can be bestowed upon a service member. Only members of the U.S. military are eligible, and the requirements are so rigorous that many of them are awarded posthumously. Of the six Medals of Honor that have been awarded for Operation Iraqi Freedom, only one was awarded to a living recipient. SFC Cashe would be the first Black recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions taken since the Vietnam War.
On August 24, 2020, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives endorsing a Medal of Honor for Cashe in the event that the House waived the five-year limitation. Representatives Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), and Michael Waltz (R-FL) introduced legislation that would waive the limitation; on September 22, 2020, the House unanimously voted to pass HR 8276 and thereby authorize the president to posthumously award SFC Cashe with the Medal of Honor. The Senate also passed the bill unanimously in November, and Donald Trump signed the bill on December 4; it was still not yet officially awarded, however, as the bill simply waived the limitations and authorized the president to award it.
The White House announced that it would wait until after the inauguration of Joe Biden to hold an award ceremony. After 16 years, SFC Cashe’s medal now seems closer than ever.