WASHINGTON — When Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne and Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee received the nation’s highest military valor award, they joined a select group of Soldiers who earned the Medal of Honor while on active duty.
Now the recipients have taken the responsibility of representing the Army while also helping draw interest of potential recruits to the service.
Plumlee and Payne attended the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s 2023 Citizen Honors Awards on March 25, which recognized fellow recipients and other service members.
“I feel like wherever I go I represent the Army even more so than before,” Plumlee said during the event that commemorated National Medal of Honor Day in Pentagon City. “I think it does come with that obligation to hold yourself to a slightly higher standard of conduct but it’s that beautiful burden.”
“You’re constantly representing the Army and the United States,” Payne said. “Anytime our boots hit the ground, we’re ambassadors of the American way of life, and it’s an honor and privilege to take the fight and crush the enemy when we have to.”
On Aug. 28, 2013, Plumlee and fellow Green Berets successfully defended a forward operating base from an insurgent attack. His bravery first earned him the Silver Star which was later upgraded.
Plumlee said he now embraces his role as a Medal of Honor recipient after initially being reluctant to step into the national spotlight. Plumlee said in 2021 said he did not want to take attention from his elite unit of Green Berets.
On Dec. 16, 2021, President Biden awarded Plumlee the Medal in the White House’s East Room. Plumlee deployed shortly after the week of ceremonies honoring his actions.
Following his reception of the Medal of Honor, Plumlee later returned to his home state of Oklahoma in October 2022 during at outreach tour where he spoke to potential Army recruits at different schools. Plumlee also attended the Oklahoma State University homecoming game.
The Soldier stepped away from his duties as a Green Beret and represented the Special Forces Recruiting Battalion as well as the Army Recruiting Command, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky, to encourage potential recruits to join the Army. After falling short of its recruiting goals in 2022, the Army aims to recruit 65,000 new Soldiers into its ranks in 2023.
“I share with [recruits] how meaningful my service has been to me, how proud I am when I look back at what the country is,” he said.” I’ve played that part of creating the system that we have.”
Payne, who on Oct. 22, 2015 led one of the largest rescue operations in U.S. history to earn the Medal, echoed Plumlee’s sentiments. Payne said he has done some recruiting outreach for the Army, but his duties as an Army Ranger take precedence.
Payne, standing with the Medal adorned around his neck, said that the Army presents a unique profession for recruits providing personal growth and career development.
“If you were to lay out 100 careers for me today, knowing what I know about it now, I would pick this career 100 times over,” Payne said. “I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve with the greatest servicemen that this country has to offer.”
During the 2015 mission, Payne joined a Special Operations Joint Task Force to liberate more than 70 Iraqi prisoners from an Islamic State group prison in Hawija, Iraq.
The South Carolina native enlisted in the Army as an infantry Soldier after graduating high school in 2002. Now he serves as an instructor for Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
On Sept. 11, 2020, President Trump placed the Medal of Honor upon Payne’s shoulders in a White House ceremony.
“I’ve had the opportunity to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment … the most elite Soldiers in the United States military,” said Payne, 38. “And they set the foundation of how to be a warrior on the battlefield. And I’m grateful for that leadership and I’m carrying on their legacy … We’re just paving the way forward for the next generation.”
Both Soldiers are nearing the end of their military careers. Plumlee said that he expects to retire within the next two years and take some years off to spend time with his wife and children.
Although Plumlee and Payne have not yet decided on their plans after the Army, they both said they will continue to represent the Army and become productive citizens.
“Just be productive members of society,” Payne said. “We’ll go back to our hometowns, kind of like that Vietnam and World War II generation that coached itself in youth football and baseball. [We’ll] just give back.”