“It’s just hard to explain where your soldiers got the courage they got,” the president said as he awarded the three medals.
WASHINGTON — One of them plunged into a burning truck over and over, his own uniform aflame, to pull others to safety. One made a shield with his body to allow an evacuating helicopter to fly away. One ran toward a breach in the wall of his base, shaking off explosions that blew him backward, to stop an insurgent attack despite being badly outnumbered.
President Biden lauded them all on Thursday, awarding the Medal of Honor to Sgt. First Class Alwyn C. Cashe and Sgt. First Class Christopher A. Celiz, who both died from the wounds they suffered in combat, and Master Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee.
Sergeant Plumlee and Sergeant Celiz were honored for their service in Afghanistan. Sergeant Cashe, who Mr. Biden said was the first African American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, was honored for actions in Iraq.
“Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude today,” Mr. Biden told more than 100 attendees at the ceremony in the East Room, “as we honor the unparalleled courage and commitment to duty and indispensable, undisputable gallantry” of the three men.
“It’s just hard to explain where your soldiers got the courage they got,” he said.
The medals were the first Mr. Biden has awarded since the United States completed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan he ordered soon after taking office. That withdrawal plunged quickly into turmoil, stranding American citizens in the country as it returned to Taliban control after nearly two decades of war and culminating with a bomb attack at the Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members.
In his remarks, Mr. Biden returned repeatedly to the bravery of the honored soldiers, the brutalities of war and the responsibility of the nation to safeguard its troops, which he called the nation’s “one truly sacred obligation.”
Sergeant Cashe was traveling in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Salahuddin Province, Iraq, on Oct. 17, 2005, when it came under attack from enemy fire and an explosive device, catching fire. He helped to pull the driver to safety, but in the process, Sergeant Cashe’s uniform was soaked with fuel and caught fire. Even as he suffered severe burns, he pulled four of his peers from the rear of the vehicle, then returned to rescue two others.
Despite severe pain from his burns, he refused to be evacuated by medical helicopters until all other wounded soldiers were taken away. When he eventually awoke at a hospital in Texas and regained his ability to speak, Mr. Biden said, his first words were for his fellow soldiers: “How are my boys?”
Sergeant Cashe died about three weeks after the attack, at age 35. Mr. Biden said he was the seventh person to receive a Medal of Honor for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Alwyn Cashe was a soldier’s soldier,” the president said, “a warrior who literally walked through fire for his troops.”
Sergeant Celiz, 32, was helping to clear an area of Afghanistan on July 12, 2018, when a large enemy force attacked. He exposed himself to enemy fire, including from heavy machine guns, to retrieve and use a heavy weapons system and help American forces regroup and treat a wounded partner. He shielded the wounded person on the way to a medical helicopter, then put himself between the cockpit and the enemy, suffering and returning heavy fire, to help the helicopter lift off.
He was wounded by the enemy fire, but he motioned for the helicopter to take off anyway.
“He knew he was hit, but he waited for the aircrew to depart without him,” Mr. Biden said. “In the face of extreme danger, he placed the safety of his team and his crew above his own.”
“Christopher Celiz was courage made flesh.”
Sergeant Plumlee was taking a quick photo at his base in Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2013, when insurgents detonated a car bomb that blew a hole in the base wall. He jumped into a car, raced to the blast with five other soldiers and found 10 enemy fighters pouring into the base wearing explosive vests. His group took rocket fire, and he ran toward it, firing back with his pistol. He killed one insurgent with a grenade and another with a sniper shot that set off the fighter’s explosive vest.
He used his body as a shield and continued moving closer to enemy fighters, despite suffering injuries when they detonated their vests. One blast threw him into a wall, injuring his back. But Sergeant Plumlee still carried a wounded fellow soldier to safety and administered first aid, before helping to organize others to clear and secure the area.
On Thursday, he stood as Mr. Biden clasped the ribbon that hung the Medal of Honor around his neck.
“This recognition has been too long in coming,” Mr. Biden said in honoring him, “delayed for you and your family as well. And no one, no one will forget how you sprang into action when the enemy attacked our base.”
Mr. Biden at several points paused to thank the families of all three honorees for their strength and sacrifice. So did Maj. Gen. Thomas Solhjem, the Army’s chief of chaplains, who opened and closed the ceremony in prayer.
“Bless Master Sergeant Plumlee, the Cashe and Celiz families, as the names of these men are etched into our nation’s proud history,” he said. “May their leadership and legacies mark the truest north for us to seek, and may we all strive to be strong and courageous in the face of challenges that life may bring.”