PITTSBURGH -- Speaking publicly for the first time since he taped over the name of Antwon Rose Jr. and wrote the name of Alwyn Cashe on the back of his helmet, Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said his decision was "exclusively" about the Army veteran who died from injuries suffered in Iraq in 2005.
"The decision had to do exclusively with Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and his pursuit for the Medal of Honor, which is something that he deserves and hopefully he'll get soon," Villanueva said Monday.
Cashe died on Nov. 5, 2005, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio after suffering severe burns while trying to rescue other soldiers from a burning vehicle in Iraq after an ambush on Oct. 17. Cashe was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for heroism.
"I felt that my decision to honor Sgt. First Class Alwyn Cashe was something that was very personal to me due to the fact that in the veteran community, there's a strong push to get him a Medal of Honor, which is something that the community believes that he deserves," said Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan. "I think that the timing was perfect due to the fact that it gave the lawmakers a little bit of momentum going forward. The family has been waiting for 15 years to hear something from his chain of command, from Congress regarding the exception of his five-year statutory limit that could potentially get him the Medal of Honor."
Earlier this month, there was some movement by House lawmakers to upgrade Cashe's award to the Medal of Honor, something that could only be done if Congress passes new legislation to bypass the rule that the medal must be awarded within five years of the service member's heroism. Cashe would be the first Black recipient of the award for valor in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"The issues that matter to veterans are incredibly important," Villanueva said. "I feel like I don't do enough as an American every day to enjoy my liberties, and I feel very thankful to have the support of the veteran community and the background to appreciate the freedoms that we all enjoy."
Villanueva's decision to tape over the name of Rose, an unarmed teenager killed by East Pittsburgh police in 2018 when he was fatally shot in the back fleeing a traffic stop, angered Rose's mother, Michelle Kenney, because she was told the team took a vote to honor Rose. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, though, told reporters the decision was made "upstairs."
Center Maurkice Pouncey also posted a statement on Instagram saying that he "inadvertently supported a cause of which I did not fully comprehend the entire background of the case" and would make his own decision about the name on the back of his helmet following Week 1. For the Week 2 home opener, Pouncey wore the name of Eric Kelly, a Black Pittsburgh police officer killed in the line of duty in 2009. Other Steelers also changed names on the backs of their helmets for the games after Week 1, although some opted to continue wearing Rose's name.
"I don't have an issue with him not choosing to represent Antwon," Kenney said of Villanueva. "I believe that he, like everyone else, is entitled to their own opinion. ... My only problem with the entire thing was that I was told they were take a team vote. I do not believe that Antwon's life supersedes the death of any other person. I just believe they died in different ways. Him choosing to represent someone else wasn't what offended me.
"I feel like with Pouncey, like with Villanueva, if you didn't want to wear Antwon's name, say that and don't do it. Don't set the movement backward because of your own personal agenda. Because this is bigger than Antwon. Antwon's gone. I'm trying to save the life of the next Black person."