Investigation shows why the Army denied a soldier the Medal of Honor

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Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee is presented the Silver Star Medal for his actions in Afghanistan by Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, I Corps Deputy Commanding General, at Joint Base Lewis-Mcchord, Wash., on 1 May, 2015. Codie Mendenhall/U.S. Army
Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee is presented the Silver Star Medal for his actions in Afghanistan by Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, I Corps Deputy Commanding General, at Joint Base Lewis-Mcchord, Wash., on 1 May, 2015. Codie Mendenhall/U.S. Army

Investigation shows why the Army denied a soldier the Medal of Honor

by: Dan Lamothe | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: June 09, 2016

  The Army followed its rules while denying a Medal of Honor last year to a Green Beret soldier credited with staving off a brutal ambush in Afghanistan, according to a Defense Department Inspector General report released Wednesday. But the report provides a unique glimpse into something else: just how subjective decisions surrounding awards for valor can be.

The investigation examined the case of Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee, who was recommended for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for combat valor, for his role in repelling a bloody Taliban attack Aug. 28, 2013, on Forward Operating Base Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. Plumlee, a member of 1st Special Forces Group from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, is credited with killing several attackers at point-blank range, using both small arms and hand grenades, as their suicide vests detonated.

The commander of Plumlee's task force nominated him for the Medal of Honor, and the recommendation was backed by senior battlefield commanders, including Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. But in May 2015, Plumlee instead received a Silver Star, two levels below the Medal of Honor, drawing concerns from Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R.-Calif., and prompting Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter to request an inspector general investigation.

Hunter questioned whether Plumlee's award was downgraded to a Silver Star because he was subsequently investigated by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) for attempting to sell a rifle scope online. Though the investigation was closed without any charges being brought against him, the implication was that the Army didn't want a Medal of Honor recipient with that kind of baggage.

The inspector general found no evidence that anyone used the CID investigation to justify awarding the Silver Star, which typically is awarded in a small ceremony at a soldier's base, rather than the Medal of Honor, which comes with national recognition and a ceremony at the White House. But the report did provide new details about how the decision to not give Plumlee a Medal of Honor was reached.

In Afghanistan, the Medal of Honor of Honor recommendation received approval from senior officers that included then-Maj. Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, now believed to be the three-star commander of Joint Special Operations Command; then-Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, now the four-star Army chief; and Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Army Human Resources Command's awards branch received the nomination in January 2014. The issue was taken up by the service's Senior Army Decorations Board afterward, with two three-star generals and the top enlisted soldier in the service, then-Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler, serving as voting members. Two of them recommended the Silver Star, while another saw the Distinguished Service Cross, one notch below the Medal of Honor, as more appropriate. Separately, a previous unnamed Medal of Honor recipient serving as a non-voting adviser to the board also recommended the Silver Star.

One of the voting members said his decision not to recommend the Medal of Honor came down in large part to one thing: Plumlee's rank. Then a staff sergeant, Plumlee was expected to be a leader once the Taliban attacked rather than "a private who would be seized by the moment and take extremely valorous and courageous action," the board member told the inspector general, according to the report.

"One' s a leader. One's a Soldier," the member said, according to the report. "And so when I looked at the circumstances and, although the battle was ferocious and unfortunately a couple members were killed, I just thought that it wasn't a sufficient level for the Medal of Honor based off of the individual and the circumstances and that, I just felt there was an expectation of a leader who did a phenomenal job, that there was something more that [the nominee] needed to have done in order to, in my mind, to make a recommendation for a Medal of Honor."

Another board member told the IG that he had concerns about the lack of detail in witness statements that were submitted on Plumlee's behalf.

As the recommendation continued to make its way through the Army's bureaucracy, the CID investigation of Plumlee became known, Army officials said. Some other commanders in Plumlee's chain of command recommended against the Medal of Honor, but the soldier found an advocate in July 2015 in Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, who had just taken over as the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, known as the "G-1." Despite the decorations board calling for a Silver Star, he recommended a Medal of Honor.

McConville told the inspector general that he was a commanding general in eastern Afghanistan when Plumlee's base was ambushed, and aware of what happened that day. Without Plumlee, McConville told the inspector general, enemy insurgents could have penetrated deep into the base, resulting in a significant impact on coalition operations across the country. According to a summary of Plumlee's actions, the attack was initiated with a 400-pound car bomb that breached the defenses of the base.

"LTG McConville stated that he believed the nominee's actions were worthy of the MOH; however, after reading the award recommendation packet, he was not sure that a reader would fully grasp what really happened during the firefight," the IG report said. "He stated that MOH award recommendations must be constructed to 'make sure people fully understand the level of valor that was involved.'"

The Silver Star recommendation ultimately received a positive recommendation from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, then the Army chief of staff, and approval from then-Army Secretary John McHugh.

Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Wednesday that the IG report speaks for itself. She declined to answer whether it is fair that when reviewing valor award recommendations, the service may consider similar actions by soldiers of different ranks differently. She also declined to say whether the Army will consider Plumlee again for the Medal of Honor.

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, said that the comments of members on the decorations board show "enormous amounts of personal prejudice" in how valor awards are approved.

"In essence what he's saying is, 'If this was a private, it would rate the Medal of Honor, but because we expect our NCOs to do valorous things it doesn't,'" Kasper said. "That person should be looking at the actions alone."

As part of its findings, the inspector general recommended that the Army consider developing a valor award eyewitness statement form that includes an "appropriate explanation of valor award criteria" and ask witnesses to provide enough facts and details about how a nominee's actions to meet the standards required for an award. The IG also called for the Army to consider requiring that valor award recommendations include statements from all eyewitnesses. It is not clear whether the Army will do so.