August 21, 2018
Moments after Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts fell from a battle-damaged helicopter onto a snowy mountain in Afghanistan, Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman and his Navy SEAL teammates made a fateful decision: They would scramble back to Roberts on another aircraft, knowing that al-Qaeda fighters were closing in.
John Chapman died trying to rescue a Navy SEAL. Now he'll receive the Medal of Honor
The ensuing battle at Takur Ghar was one of the ugliest near the outset of the Afghanistan war, and it was examined at length by the U.S. military after the deaths of Roberts, Chapman and five other elite U.S. service members. But the Pentagon now says that for years, official accounts did not recognize Chapman’s final moments and how he sacrificed his life in an attempt to save fellow U.S. troops on an incoming helicopter that was about to be ambushed by al-Qaeda fighters.
On Wednesday, Chapman will become the first member of the Air Force to be recognized with the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest award for valor in combat — since the Vietnam War. Navy SEALs fighting alongside Chapman thought he was dead when they were forced down the mountain under a hail of enemy fire, but he was unconscious and awoke to fight militants alone for another hour before he was killed March 4, 2002.
The determination was made after a 30-month investigation. In 2002, Chapman posthumously received the Air Force Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor in his service — for actions that included climbing up a steep hill under fire in the battle and killing at least two militants inside a bunker on top. But former Air Force secretary Deborah James recommended — and President Trump approved — an upgrade after an examination of drone video footage and interviews with service members who monitored his final moments by radio and powerful aircraft sensors.
John Chapman died trying to rescue a Navy SEAL. Now he'll receive the Medal of Honor
“John was the only American that was alive on the mountaintop, and there was somebody fighting for an hour,” an Air Force officer involved in the investigation told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his unit. “Somebody on the top of the bunker continued to engage the enemy.”
The investigation opened old wounds in the close-knit Special Operations world, as the New York Times first reported two years ago. The Pentagon long ago recognized Chapman, Air Force Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham and Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski with awards just below the Medal of Honor for their valor in the battle, but was it forced to confront the conclusion that the SEAL team led by Slabinski mistakenly left Chapman behind.
James has accused senior U.S. Special Operations officers of slow-rolling Chapman’s upgrade out of concern for how it would reflect on the SEALs. The White House announced Chapman’s Medal of Honor but only after recognizing Slabinski, who went on to retire as a master chief petty officer, with the same award in May. U.S. military officials have declined to comment on the controversy, while Slabinski told Breaking Defense in an interview in May that he was “looking for some sign, some movement, any sign of life” from Chapman in the battle and that “I didn’t get anything out of John.”
Chapman, 36, was an elite Air Force combat controller assigned to Slabinski’s SEAL team to call in airstrikes, and was the father of two young girls. Chapman, of Windsor Locks, Conn., and Slabinski, of Northampton, Mass., grew up less than 50 miles from each other and often played chess together while deployed, Slabinski told Breaking Defense.
John Chapman died trying to rescue a Navy SEAL. Now he'll receive the Medal of Honor
Chapman was awarded the Air Force Cross for his initial actions, which mostly occurred in collaboration with Slabinski as they assaulted enemy machine-gunners. Eventually, Chapman was wounded and the SEALs withdrew under withering gunfire, the Air Force found.
Chapman’s culminating actions included climbing out of a bunker about 30 feet from an al-Qaeda machine gun emplacement. Chapman took aim at other enemy fighters who were preparing to launch rocket-propelled grenades at an incoming CH-47 helicopter carrying Army Rangers as part of a rescue operation, and he was killed by enemy machine-gun fire in the process, according to the investigation.
The mortal gunshot wounds hit Chapman in the back near his right shoulder. The military found that by then, he already had suffered several other gunshot wounds and a broken nose.
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