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Biden awards Medal of Honor to three soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan

Among the honorees was the first Black servicemember to be recognized for combat heroism in Iraq.

An Army sergeant who helped rescue six soldiers out of a burning vehicle in Iraq despite being engulfed in flames himself was one of three soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor on Thursday by President Joe Biden.

The award to Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe — the first Black soldier to receive the country's highest military honor for combat actions in Iraq or Afghanistan — was accepted by his widow, Tamara. Cashe died from his injuries in a Texas burn unit in 2005, just weeks after the ambush attack.

"This honor is earned," his sister, Kasinal Cashe-White, told NBC News ahead of the ceremony. "He earned this with his last breath."

Also honored posthumously was Sgt. 1st Class Christopher A. Celiz, who used his body as a shield to protect a fellow soldier who'd been hurt in Afghanistan and then stayed behind to make sure he could be safely airlifted away.

"He always believed that you put your men in your mission first. And I think he always did that. And so for him to be recognized for his sacrifices ... it's humbling," said his widow, Katie Celiz.

Master Sgt. Earl D. Plumlee also served in Afghanistan, where he responded to a large explosion that had caused a 60-foot breach in the wall of his Army base. He managed to fight off several suicide vest-wearing insurgents dressed as Afghan soldiers before carrying a wounded soldier to safety.

Biden praised all three as "outstanding soldiers" during the ceremony at the White House, and said their "actions embodied the highest ideals of selfless service."

Cashe was a Florida native and the youngest of 10 siblings. He enlisted in the Army when he was 19. He married his wife in 1993, and they have three kids.

"When he went into the Army, he found his niche. This was his thing," Cashe-White said.

Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, who served with Cashe in Iraq, called him "a soldier's soldier."

Alwyn C. Cashe.U.S. Army via AP

Cashe was riding in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle when it went over an IED near an Iraqi village occupied by insurgents on Oct. 17, 2005, causing its fuel tank to explode.

"That evening was horrible," Brito said. Cashe managed to get out of the vehicle and pull the driver to safety, but his uniform "became soaked in fuel.

"Flames ignited his uniform, his body and his skin," Brito said. Cashe nevertheless went back to the rear of the vehicle to get the rest of his men out, even as they came under fire.

"He bravely continued to take care of his soldiers and evacuate them to the very best of his ability, one after another one after another," Brito said. "He had to be in unbearable pain" but kept going back until they were all clear.

"He saw the people he loved in danger. And he was trying to remove them from that danger," Cashe-White said.

When helicopters arrived to evacuate the wounded, Cashe insisted that he be the last one taken. He'd suffered second- and third-degree burns over 72 percent of his body.

Cashe-White championed her brother's heroism and campaigned for him to be awarded the Medal of Honor, acting as the administrator of the Alwyn Cashe Deserves the Medal of Honor Facebook group.

"It's very hard. I buried my baby brother in 2005. We started this quest in 2007. I kept telling my mom, 'It's gonna come to pass, it's gonna come to pass.' We buried my mom in 2010, and it hadn't come to pass. It was like, 'Mama, this is gonna happen.' So I've worked harder. We worked harder and I have to believe with everything that I've been taught from my pastor that they're looking down. They're here," she said.

Brito advocated for Cashe to get the award. "Whether it took 12 weeks, 12 months or in this case 12-plus years, we were committed to it and the legacy of Sgt. 1st Class Cashe deserves it," he said.

Cashe-White said she was very moved that her brother was being recognized with the country's highest honor, but she anticipated the ceremony would be "bittersweet."

"If I could give the medal this day back to erase Oct. 17, 2005, from the calendar I would, because he'd still be here. The medal means everything, but it means nothing," she said.

Addressing Cashe's family at the ceremony, Biden said, Cashe was "a hero." "I know it's tough," Biden said, but "he'll be remembered forever."

Celiz, a South Carolinian, enlisted in the Army in 2006, two years after graduating high school. He married Katie a year later, and they have a daughter, Shannon, who's 11.

"Chris believed that you should always do good for the sake of doing good. You shouldn't be kind or do something expecting something in return. He always believed that you put your men and your mission first. And I think he always did that," Katie Celiz said.

Celiz was leading an operation to clear an area in the Paktia Province of Afghanistan on July 12, 2018, when he and his troops came under attack.

Celiz "voluntarily exposed himself to intense enemy machine gun and small arms fire to retrieve and employ a heavy weapon system, thereby allowing U.S. and partnered forces to regain the initiative, maneuver to a secure location and begin treatment of a critically wounded partnered force member," the White House said.

When the medical evacuation helicopter arrived, Celiz used his body to physically shield soldiers who were evacuating the injured soldier. With the chopper under fire, Celiz stayed behind to try to fight off the attackers, and waved for it to take off even after he'd been hit himself.

"His selfless actions saved the life of the evacuated partnered force member and almost certainly prevented further casualties among other members of his team and the aircrew," the White House said.

Celiz said she anticipates that accepting her husband's award will be "a beautiful experience," but she tries not to think of his sacrifice and his final day.

"It kind of frustrated me and made me a little angry, but I know for a fact that Chris had not taken those actions he wouldn't have been able to live with himself," she said.

"I try not to dwell on it too much, because it's easy to go to that dark place. And so I just try to think more about who Chris was and how positive he was and the joy he brought to everybody, including me and my daughter," Celiz said.

The president told Celiz's daughter "thank you for sharing your dad with our country."

"We'll never forget the debt we owe you and your whole family," Biden said.

Plumlee is an Oklahoma native who joined the Marines after the 9/11 terror attacks, and married his wife, Terrie, in 2007. Two years later, he joined the Army, and was a staff sergeant stationed at Forward Operating Base Ghazni in Afghanistan in 2013 when insurgents blew a 60-foot hole in the bases wall.

President Joe Biden awards the Medal of Honor to Army Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee on Thursday.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The base came under fire and suicide bombers came in through the breach. Plumlee jumped in a vehicle to try to stop them.

"There was just so much activity, things burning. ... It was a pretty chaotic situation," said Tony Bell, then a sergeant major at the base.

The vehicle Plumlee was in stopped to aid someone they thought was an Afghan soldier, who then opened fire on them. Plumlee tried to shield the driver and then got out of vehicle to return fire, but his rifle got caught on the door, leaving him with only his pistol.

He shot the gunman, and then started advancing toward the other insurgents, killing one with a grenade and shooting the vest of another who was charging at him, exploding it.

"I remember feeling the pain from the blast like in my bones," Plumlee said.

He then tended to a soldier injured by one of the bombers, rendering first aid before continuing to clear the area with three Polish soldiers.

Plumlee said he was humbled by being honored with two soldiers who gave their lives.

"I'm going to have to wear that medal and carry those men's honor forward through my life. And that's a pretty heavy responsibility," he said. "I think our stories at this point are going to be bound together forever. And I hope I can represent them well."