A Green Beret credited by his command with taking down several enemy and saving hundreds of lives during an ambush in Afghanistan was doing the job expected of a soldier of his caliber — and therefore his actions didn't meet the standard of the Medal of Honor.
This sure-to-be controversial conclusion was drawn by a member of the Senior Army Decorations Board tasked with considering Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee's nomination for the top valor award, according to a newly released Defense Department Inspector General report.
The board member, whose name is redacted, said the bar for obtaining the MoH should be much higher for a senior NCO like Plumlee "versus a private."
"One's a leader. One's a Soldier," the member said, according to the investigation. "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 the individual and the circumstance and that, I just felt that 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 the recommendation for a Medal of Honor."
This logic is "absolutely insane," said Joe Kasper, the chief of staff of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the Congressman who has lobbied for reconsideration for Plumlee to earn the MoH.
"It was another case where Army leadership was trying to be overly-cautious, and in doing so became pessimistic and prejudicial against Plumlee, personally," Kasper told Army Times. "This underscores the fact that the Army needs to re-examine this."
The three-member board ultimately recommended Plumlee receive a Silver Star for his heroism in the 2013 battle on Forward Operating Base Ghazni.
The IG report noted two other reasons the board recommended Plumlee's award downgrade:
• There were conflicting reports of what happened
• Plumlee wasn't the only hero that day.
The night of Aug. 28, a car bomb blew a hole in the perimeter wall of FOB Ghazni. Seconds later, 10 insurgents armed with assault rifles and wearing suicide vests poured into the compound. About 10 minutes of intent close-combat ensued as those initially believing they were responding to give first aid to victims ended up taking fire. But thanks to Plumlee and other forces who responded, the insurgents would never reach the more populated parts of the camp. One American, Staff Sgt. Micheal Ollis, and one Polish soldier were killed.
Plumlee, at times using a pistol, rifle and hand grenades, "aggressively advanced on the enemy," according to his citation. He is credited with killing at least three insurgents though he shot more. He also pulled Ollis, who had been mortally wounded, out of enemy fire.
His nomination for the MoH had notable supporters to include Marine Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Dunford and then-Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, now a four-star and the Army's chief of staff.
Former Army Secretary John McHugh and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, however, supported the board's recommendation for awarding the Silver Star.
Hunter recently petitioned new Army Secretary Eric Fanning, imploring him to reopen Plumlees nomination.
"You are in the position to make this right. The Army's decision to downgrade SFC Plumlee's nomination for the Medal of Honor is well known in the Special Operations Community — resubmitting his nomination will go a long way to restoring trust and morale among our warfighters at the leading edge of the fight," Hunter said in a recent letter to Fanning.
The IG findings
Hunter's campaigning led to the DoD IG investigation, which examined Plumlee's nomination process and sheds new light on the board's decision-making.
One board member noted that Plumlee was one of several personnel who took part in the firefight. He alluded to Ollis, who died shielding a Polish coalition soldier from an explosion. The board member said not all valorous acts meet MoH criteria; he noted that Ollis was posthumously awarded a Silver Star. Several others, U.S. and Polish soldiers, receive Bronze Stars with V and Army Commendation Medals with V for their actions.
That member also said the two eyewitness statements submitted with the packet didn’t line up with the award narrative, leaving the packet short on its burden of proof. He said the narrative said Plumlee "single-handedly eliminated 3 of 10 insurgents and wounding a 4th" but said these facts were "never mentioned in the eyewitness statements."
"We don’t have incontestable proof and we don’t — we cannot accommodate ‘conspicuous,'" the member said, according to the report.
The report found flaws in the process for assembling packets to support valor awards; deputy IG Marguerite Garrison described it as "a potential systemic deficiency" in her cover letter for the report. A form often used in Medal of Honor recommendation packets — the same ones used in 15-6 investigations — "might not provide sufficient detail by itself to support an individual's valor award recommendation."
One of the three board members recommended a Distinguished Service Cross, one valor medal below the MoH. That member did not elaborate, and told the IG he didn’t remember the specific reason.
There had been speculation that Plumlee's downgrade was related to the fact he was not "politcally correct" enough to serve in the public spotlight as an MoH recipient. Hunter also speculated the board had caught wind Plumlee was investigated for selling a military scope online (he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.) Despite these theories, the IG found no evidence either factor contributed to the board's recommendation.
Army public affairs declined to answer specific questions for this article.
"The report speaks for itself," Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.
Plumlee was not immediately available for an interview.