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Alwyn Cashe: Remembering a soldier who gave his life to save others

Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, in an undated photo. (U.S. Army/Released)

Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe was on fire as he rushed to save his men that evening in northern Iraq 16 years ago. A roadside bomb had just disabled his Bradley Fighting Vehicle, setting it ablaze.

One by one, Cashe helped get his trapped soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter out of the wrecked vehicle. Flames burned nearly three quarters of his body. He died from his wounds three weeks later.

Cashe was posthumously presented with the Silver Star for his heroism. His unit — the 3rd Infantry Division — recently renamed its memorial garden for him. Located just outside the division’s headquarters, a newly erected sign describing his bravery leaves space for the highest award for valor in combat.

Cashe is expected to become the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Last year, Congress approved legislation clearing the way for him to receive the medal. Now Cashe’s family and friends are waiting for the Biden administration to announce the ceremony date.

“He was just on autopilot,” Lt. Col. Leon Matthias Jr., who witnessed Cashe’s heroism, said after watching the 3rd Infantry Division honor Cashe with a cannon salute and a helicopter flyover. “He just jumped into doing everything he could to bring every soldier back.”

‘Do it like you are putting your name on it’

The youngest of 10 children, Cashe grew up in Oviedo, Florida. His father, Andrew Cashe, a construction worker who died when Cashe was a young boy, encouraged his children to focus on their education and do things the right way.

“My Daddy used to say, and we say it now, ‘Whatever you do, do it like you are putting your name on it,'” said Cashe’s sister, Kasinal Cashe White. “I guess we all kind of lived that way.”

Her brother was adventurous and had a lopsided grin, White said. Their late mother, Ruby Mae Cashe, spoiled him.

“We used to tease our mom that by the time he got to be our age we had softened her up, so she let him do a whole lot of stuff that we didn’t do,” White said.

Encouraged by a family friend, Cashe joined the Army at 17, the same year he graduated from Oviedo High School. He started out as a supply specialist, became an infantryman and then served as a squad leader, drill sergeant and platoon sergeant. Cashe deployed in support of the Gulf War in 1991, participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and served in South Korea and Germany before returning to Iraq in 2005.

The military suited Cashe, an avid hunter and fisherman, White said.

“When he went to the Army, he found his niche,” she said. “It afforded him the opportunity to be himself. Who wants to jump out of a plane? He did. Repelling, scaling walls and all of that outdoorsy stuff — he was an outdoorsy kind of guy.”

Meanwhile, Cashe cared deeply about the soldiers with whom he served, said Col. Jimmy Hathaway, who was Cashe’s company commander in Iraq.

“He loved his guys through and through,” Hathaway said, “and would do just about anything for them.”

The ambush

A sandstorm raged north of Baghdad, when Cashe set out with his platoon for a reconnaissance mission on that October night in 2005. The troops wanted to make sure the route was safe for supply convoys to and from their base near Samarra.

Matthias, a brand new first lieutenant on his first deployment, was set to lead the mission. He had just returned from two weeks of leave and was test firing his weapon when Cashe radioed to tell him he would instead lead the patrol that night. Cashe’s Bradley pulled in front. Cashe, Matthias said, was “always in Dad mode in terms of taking care of our soldiers.”

Just minutes into their patrol, a powerful improvised explosive device struck Cashe’s Bradley, rupturing its fuel cell and setting the vehicle aflame. Enemy machine gun fire crackled amid the ambush.

Soaked in fuel, Cashe crawled out of the commander’s hatch and joined another soldier in helping pull out the driver, who was trapped and on fire, according to Cashe’s Silver Star citation. Cash’s uniform ignited. Ignoring the pain, Cashe scrambled to free six of his troops and an Iraqi interpreter, who were still trapped inside. The explosion severed the cable that controlled the lock to the troop ramp.

Among the soldiers still inside were Gary Mills and Douglas Dodge. The blast knocked Dodge out. And it set him and Mills on fire. When he regained consciousness, the smoke was so thick that Dodge couldn’t see anything except for the glow of the fire all around him. He swatted away the flames burning his face and used a crowbar to wedge open the Bradley’s troop hatch. He climbed through it and fell to his knees outside, dazed. That is when he saw Cashe. Dodge noticed fire had burned away Cashe’s uniform, leaving him only with boots, a helmet and body armor.

“Where are the boys?” Cashe yelled, according to a written statement Dodge submitted in support of the Medal of Honor for Cashe. “We gotta get the boys out.”

Cashe and Dodge climbed through the hatch. Dodge pulled out one soldier who was still on fire, while Cashe retrieved Mills and the rest. Though nearly three quarters of his body was burned, Cashe refused to be flown by helicopter to the hospital until all of the other wounded soldiers were evacuated.

“Alwyn Cashe is a hero who would never have said he was a hero,” said Dodge, who earned the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor for his actions that day.

Mills credits Cashe with saving his life.

“Even after he caught on fire, he was still trying to motivate us,” said Mills, who suffered burns on nearly a third of his body. “I don’t even know if I could have done that.”

‘How are my boys?’

Cashe’s sister remembers the first thing he said when she arrived to care for him at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

“How are my boys?” he asked her. “Tell them to fight. They can get through this.”

But four of the six soldiers he aided in Iraq died within a few weeks of the attack. Cashe passed away after them on Nov. 8. He was 35.

“His men either were discharged from the hospital or proceeded him in death. He was the last of the last,” White said. “And he left no man behind.”

Cashe’s supporters have mounted a vigorous campaign to advocate for the posthumous Medal of Honor. They started an online petition, set up a Facebook page and have submitted sworn statements to the Army. Powerful leaders have supported the cause. Among them are Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, the deputy chief of staff for Army personnel who led Cashe’s battalion in Iraq, and retired Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, who led the division that included Cashe’s unit.

“He was doing everything in his power to protect his men,” Taluto said.

Cashe is buried in the same cemetery as his mother and father in Sanford, Florida. He left behind three grown children. His son, Pfc. Andrew Cashe, graduated from infantry training at Fort Benning last summer.

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