Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee had just taken a photograph with other members of his unit when an enormous explosion shook his base in Afghanistan. The elite Special Forces soldiers didn't know it yet, but the Taliban had detonated a 400-pound car bomb and were about to start pouring through a hole in the installation's exterior wall.
The ensuing battle Aug. 28, 2013, caused the death of Army Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis, 24, the wounding of several more coalition service members, and a sharp debate: If the top battlefield commanders in Afghanistan at the time all recommended that Plumlee receive the nation's top award for valor in combat, why did the Army last year award him the Silver Star, a decoration considered two levels lower?
The issue would lead Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., to request a Defense Department inspector general investigation to determine what happened. The investigation ultimately concluded in May that the Army broke no rules in downgrading Plumlee's award but raised new questions about the subjectivity under which decorations for valor are awarded.
Plumlee, speaking in his first interview since the controversy erupted, said that "it seems kind of odd" how the situation unfolded, but that he does not "lie awake every night burning up with anger" about it. Rather, he wonders if his case is emblematic of a military awards system whose intricacies and fickle nature have long been questioned by rank-and-file service members and veterans.
"I kind of have mixed emotions about it," Plumlee said. "I kind of have a lot of trust in the system, but if somebody says it's broken, maybe it is. But I'm always leery of decisions like this getting reversed."
Plumlee, now deployed to Okinawa, Japan, with a battalion of Green Berets from 1st Special Forces Group, described the battle in detail. It occurred on Forward Operating Base Ghazni, a major coalition base at the time about 85 miles southwest of Kabul. He served on a Special Forces team that did not typically see combat and instead supported other Green Beret units in Afghanistan.
That changed after the car bomb detonated, Plumlee said. He and other soldiers, including Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Busic and Sgt. 1st Class Nate Abkemeier, hustled toward the site of the explosion in a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The truck was originally armored, but the Americans learned the metal panels inside the doors had been replaced with plywood when they started taking fire.
Plumlee, in the front passenger seat, was carrying a sniper rifle and a handgun, he said. Their vehicle began taking rocket, recoil-less rifle and small-arms fire from a three-story hotel outside the base, but they pressed on and came across what they thought were Afghan soldiers. Plumlee was about to jump out of the truck and try organize them to fight but learned the men were actually insurgents when they, too, opened fire on the pickup.
Plumlee exited the vehicle because his .308-caliber MK 20 sniper rifle was too long to maneuver from inside and quickly found himself in a battle taking fire from no more than a few dozen yards away. Things took an unusual turn when he tossed a hand grenade from around the corner of a water tank, and it landed near a man who already was lying in a prone position. Rather than run away or toss it back, the insurgent chose to keep firing his weapon at Plumlee through the water tank until the grenade detonated, Plumlee said.
Gunfire continued to come in from other angles, with a few rounds missing Plumlee's head by no more than eight inches, he recalled. He dropped to a knee and fired at the attacker with his rifle and was shocked to see the man explode. He was wearing a suicide vest.
"There was just a tremendous explosion. It scared the s--- out of me," Plumlee said. "I thought a tank had hit him with its main gun, or something. I actually looked around to see if the Polish tanks had showed up."
Plumlee started to maneuver down an alley created by shipping containers to take on other insurgents on the camp, but he was forced behind cover when his rifle ran out of ammunition. One of the insurgents charged him as Plumlee reloaded, but Plumlee got his rifle up in time to fire. The attacker's suicide vest exploded, blowing Plumlee backward into a wall.
The soldier was facing the Taliban alone mostly because of unforeseen circumstances. The driver of the pickup truck, Abkemeier, had suffered a glancing gunshot wound to the neck, and the soldier in the back seat, Busic, was temporarily locked in the truck after a Taliban rifle round hit the child-safety locks on the vehicle, Plumlee said.
Meanwhile, two other service members nearby on an ATV, Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Colbert and a service member that Plumlee declined to identify, also both had been shot, with Colbert taking a round to the buttocks and the SEAL suffering a glancing gunshot that deflected off his helmet and a second one to the leg.
Busic and Plumlee eventually reunited and came under attack by numerous insurgent hand grenades. One insurgent then detonated his suicide vest, peppering both soldiers with shrapnel and body parts.
"There was another tremendous explosion that knocked both of us back into a wall and I got hit in the chest right across the buttstock with about three-quarters of a human arm," Plumlee said. "It was hard enough that it knocked the rifle out of my shoulder and it actually broke the buttstock of my rifle."
The battle appeared to be slowing, but an insurgent who was lying down suddenly snapped to, tossed a couple of hand grenades and detonated his vest, mortally wounding Ollis as he shielded a Polish officer, Lt. Karol Cierpica, from the blast. Ollis was armed with a rifle, but did not have any body armor on at the time.
Several service members have been decorated for valor in the battle, with Ollis posthumously receiving the Silver Star and Colbert and Busic also receiving one. Abkemeier, Plumlee's driver, received a Bronze Star with "V" device, one level below the Silver Star.
Plumlee said the "bitter reaction" from some of his friends to seeing his own award reduced to the Silver Star "stole some of the thunder off of it." He framed his written endorsements for the Medal of Honor from senior commanders in Afghanistan at the time, including Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Mark Milley, now the Army's top officer.
The inspector general investigation ultimately found that an Army awards board recommended the Silver Star and that one of three voting members said his decision came down to Plumlee being a seasoned combat veteran, rather than a young soldier. The investigation did not address why a Distinguished Service Cross, one level below the Medal of Honor, was not selected.
"Nobody I think would say definitively that this guy has to get a Medal of Honor," Plumlee said of his own actions. "I think there are plenty of Medal of Honor recipients out there whose actions surpassed mine. But I think a downgrade to the Distinguished Service Cross wouldn't have got everyone stirred up. It just fed into 800 different conspiracy theories about why I didn't get it and why it had to be downgraded twice."