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Why CSM Basil L. Plumley meant so much to me and so many others

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In a March 19, 2009 photo, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley, right, and retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, left, who served together with the 1st Cavalry Division in the Ia Drang Valley, talk at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Ga. (AP/The Ledger-Enquirer)

Part of the job of a military trainer entails an unprecedented amount of research. Research never consists of  just a specific subject but it also involves historical events and the study of key leaders. I do not know of any military trainer who hasn’t come across the name of Command Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley--one of our nation's most treasured enlisted military men.

Beyond achieving the second highest enlisted rank any service member can achieve, which is more than impressive, there is something much greater about CSM Plumley’s call of duty -- it comes from the stories that followed him long after his retirement.

Stories of CSM Plumley were easy to find, especially after 2002 when his strength of character was revealed in the movie “We Were Soldiers.” Actor Sam Elliot played the role of the infamous non-commissioned officer, Command Sergeant Major Plumley.

As a military man, records reveal incredible heroism displayed by the enlisted legend--far beyond what the movie revealed.  Few realize that he was a three time recipient of the US Army’s Combat Infantry Badge—something only a couple hundred Americans were ever awarded. He earned such award through his willingness to serve America in three wars—World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

He also earned a chest plate of awards and decorations which could be seen as he wore his Class A uniform. The Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, twenty-seven awards and decorations in all, none of which comes from a career simply sitting back in garrison. You have to venture off to war to be awarded the types of accommodations that CSM Plumley earned.

Joe Galloway, the notorious wartime correspondent, also a key leading figure in “We Were Soldiers,” has written numerous accounts reflecting CSM Plumley’s character. The excerpt below is just one of many showing how brave and demanding CSM Plumley truly was:

“The sergeant major bent at the waist and shouted over the incredible din of battle----'You can't take no pictures laying down there on the ground, Sonny.' I thought to myself he's right. I also thought fleetingly that we might all die here in this place---and if I am going to die I would just as soon take mine standing up beside a man like this. Like a fool, I got up. I followed the sergeant major over to the makeshift aid station where Doc Carrera and Sgt. Tommie Keeton were tending the wounded. Plumley hollered at them: Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves! As he pulled out his .45 pistol and jacked a round into the chamber.” 

The Command Sergeant Major was ferocious. During the incident described by Galloway, and while the majority of the men were armed with M-16 assault rifles, Plumley pulled out an old .45 pistol. Some would call this insanity but for “Old Iron Jaws,” it was a motivational display of pure confidence.

We shouldn’t think for a second though that Vietnam was necessarily where the senior enlisted man was truly seasoned. He fought in the Battle of D-Day and that is where many believe he witnessed his first call to action, but they would be wrong. 

Historical accounts show that Basil Plumley participated in military operations dating back to 1943 during the Sicily Campaign—surely a frightening experience for any eighteen or nineteen year old.

Few know whether CSM Plumley ever truly feared the enemy but what we do know is the fact that he welcomed the fight. According to Guardianofvalor.com, he operated in more than twenty different military operations. Of note, this was all fulfilled through his willingness to volunteer—he was never drafted.

CSM Plumley was America’s Soldier, the kind who watched the world around him turn into chaos. He was the kind who heard the call for battle and laced his boots tightly to trek into danger. Whether he agreed or not with policy mattered little, his men were going to be sent off into harm’s way and he simply could never leave them behind by staying in the rear.

It’s difficult to teach anyone such ideology of love, passion, and courage. It’s something you cannot teach in a classroom. It’s all about doing—and by doing, others observe. It is the student’s observation to lead from the front that serves as the greatest of lessons--and leading in the front is exactly what CSM Plumley did time and again.

No, I never had the honor or the privilege to observe CSM Plumley in action. In fact, I never personally knew the man. But reading so much about him, I feel like I have known him for a very long time. His heroism, patriotism, and love for what he did has become a part of me. I believe it has become a part of many—in fact, I know it is a part of many.

I have been honored to observe the heroic actions of many of today’s warriors. America is filled with warriors willing to take up arms and rally to the battle cry. They come in multiple forms and from multiple walks of life. Some serve in our military, others our intelligence community, many in the civilian government, and equally, many are private contractors.

For every American warrior still voluntarily willing to sacrifice everything for this great nation, there is a piece of Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley in us. We do our best to motivate the troops, we bend over backward to pick up a fallen brother, and we cherish the fruits of this great nation. I believe that history tells us that is exactly what CSM Plumley wanted us to become--fearless leaders.

Kerry Patton has served in the U.S. Defense and Justice departments, and as a contractor within the Homeland Security and State departments. He has worked in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, focusing on intelligence and security interviewing current and former terrorists, including members of the Taliban. He is the author of  "Contracted: America's Secret Warriors".