Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva caught the eye of numerous veterans when Monday Night Football cameras captured a name scrawled across the back of his helmet: Alwyn Cashe.
Sgt. 1st Class Cashe died nearly 15 years ago from injuries sustained in Iraq after he repeatedly entered a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle to rescue his fellow soldiers, an effort that left him with second and third degree burns to nearly 75 percent of his body.
Despite the intense heat melting the uniform and armor to his skin, Cashe returned to the inferno numerous times to pull six soldiers from the fiery wreck. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, which, following years of recommendations by veterans and lawmakers, may soon be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, a move confirmed recently when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced plans to submit Cashe for the award.
The upgrade to the nation’s highest award for combat valor would make Cashe the first Black Medal of Honor recipient from the Global War on Terror.
“After giving the nomination careful consideration, I agree that SFC Cashe’s actions merit award of the Medal of Honor,” Esper wrote to lawmakers, notably Reps. Michael Waltz R-Fla., Stephanie Murphy D-Fla., and Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas. “If he so chooses … I will provide my endorsement (for Cashe’s medal upgrade) to the President.”
The Steelers, like the rest of the National Football League, previously announced plans to allow players to wear helmet decals to honor victims of racism and police brutality.
“This year the NFL is allowing players to wear helmet decals to honor victims of systemic racism,” the team announced. “Players could select the name of an individual to wear on their helmet and the Steelers players and coaches united as one to wear a single name on the back of their helmets and hats for the entire 2020 season – Antwon Rose Jr.”
Rose, 17, was fatally shot by East Pittsburgh police in June 2018.
Villanueva opted instead to honor Cashe, whose son Andrew is following in his father’s footsteps and is now an Army infantry soldier. Andrew may be the individual to receive the medal on his father’s behalf if the upgrade is approved.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he encouraged his offensive lineman’s decision to honor Cashe.
“We’re going to support our players however they choose to participate and express themselves, or to not participate or not express themselves, as long as they do so thoughtfully and with class.”
Villanueva made headlines in 2017 when, with his team protesting comments made by President Donald Trump by remaining off the field for the national anthem, the hulking left tackle and West Point graduate was spotted at the end of the tunnel in Chicago’s Soldier Field, hand over his heart.
The viral image made Villanueva appear to have gone against his team’s protest consensus, but the former 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment officer later clarified it was simply the result of a miscommunication between teammates moments before the anthem blared over the stadium’s loud speakers.
“When everyone sees images of me standing by myself, everybody thinks the team and the Steelers are not behind me and that is absolutely wrong,” he said after the game.
“It’s quite the opposite. ... The entire team would have been out there with me, even the ones that wanted to take a knee would have been there with me had they known these extremely (difficult) circumstances.”
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.