‘I Met a Hero:’ Air Force Doctor Who Treated Alwyn Cashe Says He’s Never Forgotten Him
Mark Rasnake outside the hospital in October 2005. (Photo courtesy of Mark Rasnake)
Posted:October 17, 2020 --- Military.com | By Hope Hodge Seck
Major Mark Rasnake was exhausted. The 32-year-old Air Force infectious disease specialist had worked through the night treating some of the worst trauma he'd seen in his life -- seven soldiers who'd been brought in after sustaining catastrophic burns when their Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit an improvised explosive device near Daliaya, Iraq, and erupted in flames. But back at his bunk at Balad Air Force Base, north of Baghdad, he could not sleep.
He opened his laptop and began to type a letter home. "I met a hero last night," he wrote. "I did not realize it at the time ... This is a place where the word "hero" is tossed around day in and day out, so much so that you sometimes lose sight of its true meaning. His story reminded me of it." As a medical professional, Rasnake never identified his patient, even in a letter only intended for family members. As it happened, though, his words would travel further than he imagined.
His local newspaper in Eastern Tennessee took it as a submission and reprinted it; and eventually, Air Force officials reached out to the paper so the service could publish it too. Rasnake's letter survives on the Air Force's official website as the first public account of the bravery of Army Sergeant (Sgt.) 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who sacrificed his life running again and again into the fiery vehicle, ignoring his own burning uniform.
It has been 15 years to the day since Cashe hauled his teammates out of the Bradley on October 17, 2005; but Rasnake, now the residency Program Director for the University of Tennessee's Division of Infectious Diseases, says he's never stopped thinking about him. "I kind of think about the guy all the time," Rasnake said in an interview.
"I've got a helmet bag that I use to carry stuff to and from work, and I put a 3rdInfantry Division patch on that thing, just to always have the visual thing to remember what he did. That has just always been important to me, to at least carry that memory." Cashe, the most severely burned of the soldiers, was ultimately evacuated to Germany for intensive treatment, and then to Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he would succumb to his injuries November 8, 2005 at age 35.
As the anniversary of his death approaches, those who loved him are newly hopeful: in August 2020, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he'd support a push to award Cashe the Medal of Honor (MOH). The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill waiving a 5-year time limitation for awarding the medal; a similar measure is expected to pass soon in the Senate.
Rasnake said he did not learn Cashe's story until a few hours after he and more than a dozen other military medical professionals had finished treating the soldiers and loaded them on an air evacuation flight bound for Germany. He cannot remember who shared the account of what happened in the aftermath of the Bradley explosion. But as word spread among his colleagues and across the base, it provoked a common feeling of awe.
"The discussions we had is, you know, if his actions don't deserve the Medal of Honor, we had trouble imagining anything that did that would," Rasnake said. Cashe was initially nominated for a lesser award, the Silver Star, by his Battalion Commander, Gary Brito, now a Major General. Brito, by his own account, pushed for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor as soon as he learned of the severity of Cashe's injuries. But as the years passed, no medal upgrade came.
At issue, according to various reports, was difficulty ascertaining accurate witness statements of what took place. While initial accounts led the Army to determine Cashe's heroism did not take place in active combat, current descriptions -- championed by lawmakers -- say he dodged enemy fire while hauling body after body out of the vehicle: 6 soldiers plus an interpreter, who died on the scene. Cashe refused medevac until the others were taken away, according to his Silver Star citation.