Who is Alwyn Cashe and why did Alejandro Villanueva choose to honor him?
Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is being both criticized and praised for taping the name Alwyn Cashe — an Army sergeant who died fighting in Iraq in 2005 — over the name of Antwon Rose Jr. on the back of his helmet for Monday night’s game.
The Steelers decided as a team to support Rose, who was killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer in June 2018, by displaying his name on the back of their helmets. Pittsburgh players also held up a sign in front of their bench that read “Steelers Against Racism.”
Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served two tours in Afghanistan, essentially called an audible, choosing instead to honor Cashe — a Black officer who died at the age of 35 after an explosive device detonated near his vehicle on Oct. 17, 2005.
Cashe was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. He incurred his fatal injuries while attempting to save his fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
As Leo Shane III describes it in Military Times, Cashe’s repeated rescue attempts resulted in second and third degree burns over 75 percent of his body.
“Witnesses said that even as the heat burned his uniform and body armor off of him, Cashe continued to ignore the pain to pull his men out of the fire,” writes Shane. Cashe died in November 2005 in an Army medical center in Texas.
Shane reported that at the time of the Silver Star award, Army officials said that even though the vehicle was set ablaze by a roadside bomb, Cashe’s actions did not merit the Medal of Honor because the soldiers were not in active combat. “However, follow-on investigations found the initial reports of the attack left out enemy gunfire which raked the ground around Cashe throughout his rescue attempts.”
Shane also reports that in the 15 years following Cashe’s heroic actions, military advocates have questioned whether Cashe’s race played a factor in the Pentagon’s reluctance to award him the Medal of Honor. Cashe served two tours in Iraq and also served in the first Gulf War.
A campaign to upgrade his recognition has been underway for years. In October 2019, U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Michael Waltz and Stephanie Murphy wrote to the Pentagon to support Cashe receiving the Medal of Honor. “Cashe has become ‘something of a legend in military circles,’ ” they wrote, according to a Military.com article. Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, is a former Navy SEAL and Waltz, a Florida Republican, is a former Green Beret. Murphy served as national security specialist at the Defense Department; a Democrat from Florida, she represents the district that includes Cashe’s hometown
In August, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper informed members of Congress of his intent to recommend the Medal of Honor for Cashe. He would become the first Black military member to receive the award for actions in the most recent wars.
While Villanueva has yet to make any public comments, these details may have played a factor in his decision to honor Cashe.
Rose’s mother Michelle Kenney expressed her dissatisfaction with Villanueva’s decision in a Facebook post. “The Pittsburgh Steelers took a team vote. Obviously, one person didn’t like the results, so they chose to do something different,” said Kenney. “I have nothing against vets and absolutely appreciate everything that they have done and continue to do for us. But this one person showed us exactly who he is and obviously he didn’t approve of how the vote turned out.”
Steelers team captain Cameron Heyward said Wednesday morning that he was “surprised” by Villanueva’s decision.
“Honestly, I was unaware of it,” said Heyward. “We had discussed it before and it was brought up to us. That is for him to comment on in the future. I’m not going to sit up here and speak for him. He’s his own man and we’ll move forward.”
However, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Villanueva had discussed his decision with him.
“As a head coach of the organization, we’re going to support our players however they choose to participate and express themselves, as long as they do so thoughtfully and with class,” said Tomlin. “And so I think it needs no further explanation in terms of our support for Al Villanueva.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected]