WASHINGTON — On a fall morning in 2005, Kasinal Cashe-White received an inconspicuous phone call from the Army.
She learned that her brother, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, had suffered injuries during his deployment in Iraq.
Aware of her baby brother's stubbornness and knack for surviving injuries, she didn't think much of the news. Instead of pressing his unit for more information, she drove to her job in Florida where she worked as a nurse.
Kasinal felt confident her little brother could survive anything and would find his way back home in good health. Few could blame her for thinking so.
How could she have known that thousands of miles away, in the sand storms of Iraq, her brother had done the unthinkable? How could she have imagined that at that very moment, Al had been in the biggest fight for his life?
Al had already been on missions during the Gulf War and then returned to the Middle East again for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “We all always felt like Al came home,” she said. Kasinal had always taken pride in her brother's choice to join the military. Since enlisting in July 1989, he'd become an accomplished infantryman. Sixteen years later, Al had neared the end of his fifth Army deployment.
Later that day, she received a second call from a Soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division — her brother's unit. She knew then Al hadn’t suffered a minor wound.
"We're going to take care of him," the Soldier told her. "We've got this." Kasinal could hear the Soldier's voice trembling and her heart sank. She knew something had gone terribly wrong.
During a security patrol in Iraq, Oct. 17, 2005, Al did what few could fathom.
He walked through the flames of a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle, his uniform singed by the roaring fire, to rescue the fellow Soldiers he cared for deeply.
Even as flames from the burning vehicle seared his skin, he ignored his own pain so that he could, again and again, pull his fellow Soldiers to safety. The burns he suffered as a result of those actions covered 70 percent of his body.
An air evacuation team later flew Al to Germany and eventually to Brooks Medical Center in San Antonio. Despite the many surgeries and the harrowing efforts of Army medical teams there, Al succumbed to the injuries he had suffered in Iraq.
The Army initially awarded Al the Silver Star for his actions in Iraq. But after 15 years of petitioning and garnering the support of politicians and fellow Soldiers, that award was upgraded, and in December 2021 the President of the United States awarded Al the Medal of Honor.
Kasinal said she wish she had spent more time with her brother during his years in the Army.
"Sometimes,” she said, her voice wavering. “The guilt of taking him for granted is almost too much to bear."
Cashe, the youngest of 10 children, was born in 1970 just outside Orlando, Florida.
One year later, the Walt Disney Company opened its largest theme park in Orlando: Walt Disney World, an amalgam of pop culture and nostalgia fused into one beaming resort of colorful attractions and rides. The park turned the Orlando region into one of the world's largest tourist destinations.
The resort, and the wealth it brought, contrasted greatly with the neighborhood where Cashe and his nine siblings grew up in near poverty. It was his older sisters and brothers who were largely responsible for Cashe's upbringing, and they said they saw him as both headstrong and adventurous.
"He'd jump off a building just to see if he could do it," Kasinal said.
The care he received at home was something he'd eventually replicate with the Soldiers who served with him during his 16 years in the Army.
Those who knew Cashe said his actions that fall night in 2005 in Iraq did not surprise them. They knew him to be a "Soldier's Soldier," one who would put his reputation and job on the line for a teammate.
Col. Jimmy Hathaway, Cashe's company commander in 2005, recalled one such instance when a troubled Soldier was on the brink of receiving an Article 15 and a possible discharge. A determined Cashe helped save the young Soldier’s career.
Cashe lobbied for the Soldier, Hathaway recalled, promising the chain of command that the Soldier had potential and could be valuable to the unit.
"He said 'Take his time, but don't take his money,'" Hathaway recalled. "He saw the good in everyone."
That Soldier went on to serve another four years, Hathaway said, ultimately earning high marks from his peers.
As a one-time drill sergeant, Cashe knew how to build civilians into Soldiers. In his years training recruits at Fort Benning, Georgia, he also developed an understanding of what it took to foster camaraderie in his platoon, and what it meant for Soldiers to place their lives in each other's hands.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Chris McKenzie said Cashe was obsessed with building a formidable platoon before a deployment.
"He would bug the crap out of me about pulling this guy or that guy," said McKenzie, Cashe's First Sergeant.
Noncommissioned officers must also know their Soldiers to gain better trust on the battlefield, and Cashe took that seriously, those who knew him said. He made it a point to know his Soldiers off duty and always asked what they'd be doing on the weekends.
"He knew their background, he knew their strengths, and he knew their weaknesses," said Lt. Col. Leon Matthias, Cashe's Platoon Leader during the 2005 deployment. "He knew how to motivate them and get the best out of them."
Through the storm
Matthias said he remains in awe of what he witnessed in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, 2005.
At the time, 2nd Lt. Matthias and Cashe led 1st Platoon in Alpha Company, 1-15th Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division near the Iraqi town of Ad Duluiya, northeast of Balad near the banks of the Tigris.
On that October night, as blistering winds blew desert sand sideways, their two-vehicle Bradley Fighting Vehicle patrol would embark on what should have been a typical five to six-mile sweep of a supply route from Forward Operating Base McKenzie through Ad Duluiya. The patrol's mission: clear the roadway for the safe passage of a convoy making a supply run later that day.
During the mission, a sandstorm blanketed the combat patrol team and turned what should have been a short patrol into a slow deliberate route clearance. The Bradley drivers, gunners and tank commanders could barely see the road and the vehicle in front of them.
It wasn't the first time Cashe and his teammates had patrolled the route or other supply routes outside of FOB McKenzie. But since the time they'd first started patrolling those routes, insurgents had attacked the softer targets of convoys with small arms fire or improvised explosive devices.
In September 2005, for instance, a convoy run by a defense contractor made a wrong turn and insurgents ambushed the convoy, blowing up several of the vehicles and killing several civilians. The fate of that convoy, escorted by another Army unit, weighed heavily upon the Soldiers' minds.
Soldiers on the Oct. 17 mission also had to contend with other factors. The Soldiers of the 1-15th Infantry Battalion faced the fact that Air Medical Evacuation had degraded due to the sandstorm passing through the area.
The Soldiers also had to overcome the challenge of getting into and out of the city, as they had few exit points. This allowed insurgents to effectively emplace IEDs on the roads between FOB Mackenzie and the town of Ad Duluiya.
"We were in a pretty precarious position of how do we secure [the logistical convoy?]" Hathaway said. "And then how in turn do we take care of ourselves? So if we do get hit, how would we get guys to the hospital? We went through all these discussions."
To make matters worse, two of four Bradley Fighting Vehicles were pulled from the patrol due to maintenance issues right as the unit prepared to go outside the wire. Unit leaders quickly huddled to assess and mitigate the risk. The Soldiers cross loaded the Bradleys and the patrol departed a little after midnight on Oct. 17.
A slight grin crept over Cashe's face. Cashe knew what his team had to do.
"We've got to protect those people," Hathaway recalled Cashe saying. "We've got to go. It's our job."
Matthias, who had recently returned to the unit from mid-tour leave, parked his lead BFV at the test fire pit outside the gate to test fire the BFV machine gun and his M4 rifle. Cashe, knowing his platoon leader was still adjusting to the recent time zone change, move his BFV into the lead position in their order of march.
"Hey sir," Cashe said to Matthias, his platoon leader as he drove around his vehicle. "I've got point tonight.”
Matthias could only shake his head as Cashe passed his vehicle and moved through FOB Mackenzie’s entry control point. Those would be the last words exchanged between the two Soldiers.
During the mission, Soldiers had to depend on the BFV’s thermal vision and their night vision goggles to see the roadway, and they drove at speeds no greater than 10 miles an hour.
"The dust storm moving through was intense," Matthias said.
Moving the convoy through the darkened desert, the Soldiers scanned the road for IEDs and obstacles. About 10 minutes into the trip, Matthias saw a tremendous flash of light envelop the lead vehicle, blinding his vision. He felt the kick of an IED and quickly radioed “IED contact” to Alpha Company while trying to communicate with Cashe’s vehicle.
Enemy forces then attacked the convoy with a flurry of small arms fire. Matthias directed his gunner to suppress enemy fire on both sides of the road.
Matthias had desperately tried to make contact with Cashe’s vehicle as the fire in and around Cashe’s vehicle grew in intensity.
Then Matthias saw it.
A silhouette of two Soldiers emerged from the Bradley’s gunner and tank commander hatch and into the swirling sandstorm. He knew immediately it was Cashe and Connelly.
"I've only seen scenes like that in movies," Matthias said.
The force of the blast had ripped open the vehicle's fuel cell, creating a blazing inferno.
"We had been hit before," said retired 1st Sgt. Peter Black, the 3rd platoon sergeant in Alpha Company at the time. "I just had never seen anything like this."
The Bradley's loading ramp remained shut because the unconscious driver could not lower it, trapping five Soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter inside. Cashe and a fellow Soldier rushed to the driver and pulled him out of the driver's seat and onto the pavement.
Cashe moved toward the back of the Bradley and began his attempts to open the secondary oval troop door the Bradley ramp. When the door was finally opened he assisted then-Staff Sgt. Douglas Dodge in exiting the Bradley.
"We've got to get the boys out," Cashe said, as he moved Dodge to the side of the road with his uniform drenched in fuel, flames began to burn him as he reached into the Bradley but Cashe shrugged it aside. Cashe continued to pull one Soldier after another out of the vehicle until the flames too completely covered his own body.
As Matthias’ Bradley continued to fire upon the insurgents, he released his Soldiers to assist the burning Soldiers in extinguishing the flames. Cashe continued to move in and out of the burning Bradley to pull Staff Sgt. George Alexander, Sgt. Gary Mills, Sgt. Michael Robertson, Spc. Raymond Salerno and the Iraqi interpreter. All were alive except for the Iraqi interpreter who succumbed from his wounds on site.
"He does not know who he is pulling out because the fire is so intense," Matthias said.
On every patrol, even when his team engaged in firefights with enemy forces, Cashe would check on every one of his troops, those who knew him said.
Cashe would take a level-headed approach to each mission and never dove headstrong into a firefight. Matthias said he would take a step back and assess probable scenarios and course of action.
That October night, as the Bradley burned and his fellow Soldiers lay trapped inside, Cashe did not hesitate, his teammates said.
"We never had to worry about not being safe," said Charles Jones, an ex-Soldier who deployed with Cashe in 2005.
Cashe remained as the vehicle and his uniform continued to blaze. He didn't accept treatment until he saw the medical team load the last injured Soldier.
"I saw a hero last night," Air Force Maj. Mark Rasnake wrote in October 2005, after he and an intensive care unit treated six burn victims on the morning of Oct. 17.
Rasnake said he learned of Cashe's story, how he kept returning for his trapped men as his own body burned and how he refused help until the last man had been rescued.
Surgeons spent hours working on his wounds so that Cashe could be transported to the U.S. But Rasnake said the damage to Cashe's lungs looked too severe.
All six Soldiers who survived the blast had massive burns. Cashe had suffered the most burns of all, Rasnake wrote. His uniform had melted onto his skin.
Three days later, on a hospital bed at Brooks Medical Center, Cashe turned to the nurses to utter his first words since regaining the ability to speak.
"How're my boys doing?" the medical staff would later recall Al saying.
With his own life in limbo and his body completely scarred, Cashe's first thoughts laid with his Soldiers. Five of the six he rescued would eventually pass, succumbing to their injuries from that terrible night. Cashe himself would pass on days later on, Nov. 8, 2005.
As Kasinal recalled, she visited the hospital right after Cashe had been born. At the time, she was only 12 years old. In the hospital there she had seen her baby brother taking some of the first breaths of his new life.
At Brooks Army Medical Center's burn treatment center, she sat with him in his final days of life. There she witnessed his last breath.
For years now, Cashe had been asking his big sister to visit him at one of his overseas posts. She'd always promised that she would, but she'd never found the time.
"I always told him, 'Ok next time,'" she said. "I didn't get that next time."
While not every Soldier survived the blast, each made it back the U.S. to receive treatment. The gravity of Cashe's actions still echo today.
"To love someone so much that you would give your life for them,” Kasinal said, pausing, "that's a heck of a tribute."
Al’s bravery in Iraq would later capture national headlines. In the years that followed, Al's family fought and campaigned for him to become the first African American Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.
On an unseasonably warm December afternoon in 2021, in the White House's East Room, his family accepted the award they had sought for so long. Weeks earlier, the Defense Department announced that it had upgraded Al's posthumous Silver Star to the Medal of Honor.
Al’s widow, Tamara, accepted the medal from President Joe Biden in a ceremony on Dec. 16.
Before Cashe-White made the trip to the nation's capital to witness her brother's widow accept the Medal of Honor, she first visited his grave near their childhood home in Oviedo, Florida.
A gray cobblestone bearing Al's name sits on a bed of rocks, covered by a bouquet and American flags. Periodically, veterans set military coins upon the stones in tribute. For 16 years, Cashe-White has visited his grave.
"He did it out of pure love for his 'boys,'" Kasinal told a television news reporter in Orlando.
A day after the White House ceremony, the Defense Department inducted Al, along with Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz and Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, into the Pentagon's "Hall of Heroes" -- a place that honors service members who have earned the Medal of Honor.
"We love him ... we miss him," Cashe-White said during the Dec. 17 ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, a military installation adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. "But this honor ... even though it took a while, we never lost the strength of the 3rd ID. They stood behind us."
Cashe-White recently reflected on her brother's sacrifice 16 years ago, before the scheduled Medal of Honor ceremony that honored him and two other Soldiers.
She recalled the years of lobbying, and the years of support she received from Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, Al’s one-time battalion commander, who now serves as the deputy chief of staff for Army personnel. It had been Brito who pulled together the affidavits and submission packets needed to move the Medal of Honor award forward.
"It's like having the world on your back ... it has been an uphill battle," she said. "Now it's come full circle. It's been a long hard fight."
Members of the 3rd ID still approach Kasinal thanking her and to pay tribute to her fallen brother. She said she still receives phone calls and messages from the unit to this day.
"They never forgot him," Kasinal said. "He's gone but the memory's there. The love has grown."
Al left behind two children and his daughter, Alexis, attended the Medal of Honor ceremony in December.