It was March 4, 2002. American special operations forces were fighting to establish observation posts high above Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot Valley, as conventional troops continued their push through the valley floor below.
One of those men, Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman, was alone in the pitch-black, wounded and slowly regaining his consciousness in the thigh-deep snow of a 10,469-foot peak known as Takur Ghar, as scores of Al Qaeda fighters closed in.
For his actions earlier in the battle and for his incredible bravery on that peak, according to sources familiar with the matter, Chapman will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor later this year.
And “Chappy” — as he was known by his teammates — will be the first Air Force service-member to receive the nation’s highest award for valor since the Vietnam War.
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It was the second day of what would be the largest battle involving conventional U.S. troops in the Afghanistan War, called Operation Anaconda. But on that early Monday morning, the MH-47 Chinook helicopter that was supposed to ferry Chapman and the SEALs to Takur Ghar was late.
The operators were due to lift-off from their Gardez base around midnight and quietly land near the base of the peak before climbing to the top. But maintenance delays and pressure from senior officers forced Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, the team’s leader, to nix the safer approach, instead opting to “land the x” of the peak at around 3 a.m.
It would prove a gross miscalculation in retrospect.
Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, and six members of Navy SEAL Team 6 — callsign Mako 30 — were to helicopter-insert high above the valley so they could direct air strikes and provide intelligence for conventional troops below, who were attempting to flush out an estimated 200 to 300 lightly-armed Al Qaeda fighters, just five months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
But both the American soldiers on the valley floor and on its peaks would soon learn the intelligence estimate was wrong: Not only were there closer to 1,000 fighters waiting for them, but they were outfitted with heavy machine-guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and even some artillery, according to one Pentagon study.
And instead of attempting to flee, as many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters did in the earlier battle of Tora Bora, these fighters intended to stay, and fight.
“The original battle plan did not survive initial contact with the enemy,” Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who monitored the battle as commander of U.S. Central Command, said later.
Before the pilot of “Razor 03” moved in toward the landing site above 10,000 feet, he got word the site was clear of enemy activity by an Air Force C-130 gunship loitering overhead. But he soon noticed an unmanned Soviet-made DShK heavy machine-gun, and as the team prepared to deploy, movement and signs of human activity were spotted on the mountaintop.
Seconds later, heavy machine-gun and RPG fire began peppering the helicopter. One RPG ripped through the aircraft’s fuselage, putting its mini-gun out of action, and small arms ripped through lines carrying hydraulic fluid, which began pouring out all over the helicopter’s rear ramp. In the chaos, one SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, slipped and fell from the back of the helicopter a short distance to the snowy ground.
They were trying to land in Al Qaeda’s back yard.
With his aircraft now heavily-damaged, the pilot struggled to keep it aloft in the thin air before evacuating the site and crash-landing about four miles away. Despite this near-death experience, Chappy brushed it off to the helicopter’s crew, according to Connecticut Magazine: “Aw, don’t worry about it. I’ve felt harder [parachute landing falls],” he said, recalling a technique airborne soldiers use to minimize hard impacts.
Now on the ground, Chapman, according to the citation for the Air Force Cross he posthumously received in 2003, immediately performed his own specialized job of combat control — coordinating air strikes and handling communications — with precision, attempting to both protect the team and rescue Roberts, who had activated his infrared strobe to signal his position to friendly forces, still alone on the mountain above.
“Any Grim, any Nail, this is Mako 30,” Chapman said over the radio, reciting callsigns for AC-130 Spectre Gunships overhead. “We’ve just had a crash-landing and need some perimeter security.”
Afterwards, Chapman “directed the gunship to begin the search for the missing team member. He requested, coordinated, and controlled the helicopter that extracted the stranded team and aircrew members,” according to his Air Force Cross.
Less than an hour after Razor 03 went down, another MH-47 helicopter landed nearby. After a brief discussion, a new plan was hatched: The crew of Razor 03 would stay in place while Razor 04 brought Chapman and the SEALs back to Takur Ghar to rescue Roberts. But an Orion P-3 surveillance aircraft spotted approximately 40 enemy fighters approaching their current position, forcing them to instead load up on Razor 04 and go back to Gardez — the weight of that many people and the thin air made returning to the peak impossible — where they could drop off the crew of the damaged helicopter and then return to the fight, according to Defense Media Network.
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Although he had only been with Slabinski’s SEAL Team for a matter of months before Takur Ghar, John Chapman, 36, had spent over a decade in Air Force Special Operations.
Born on July 14, 1965 in Springfield, Mass., Chapman grew up in Windsor Locks, Conn., not far from Bradley International Airport and its Air National Guard contingent. The third of four children, Chapman’s father Gene had served in the Air Force for a few years in the early 1960s. He met their mother Terry while serving at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
“You just always wanted [John] around,” his sister, Lori Longfritz, said. “He made good times better and bad times not so bad.” Often, he played the role of the “family clown” who could make jokes in the face of adversity, according to The New York Post, like one time as a child when he stuffed a book down the back of his pants before he was to be spanked.
Chapman was a standout athlete, playing on both his high school’s diving and soccer teams. Lori described her brother as confident — someone who was “good at most anything he tried.” And she emphasized his dedication to the mission and to the team — even as a teenager — perhaps foreshadowing the heroism he would show later in life.
In one example from high school, his sister said, Chapman was frustrated with his soccer coach, who had taken him out of the game a number of times and yelled at him on the sidelines. “He went over to my mom at halftime and said, ‘I can’t tell you how much I just want to kick the ball into the other team’s goal.’ And then he said, ‘but I can’t do that to my team.’”
Staying in Connecticut after he graduated high school wasn’t in the cards for Chapman. He only completed about a year of college at the University of Connecticut, before he came home with news of what he really wanted to do with his life.
“I think he went to my dad first and said, ‘I think I’d like to join the Air Force,’” Lori said. His father counseled him and said it was a good idea, to which he replied: “Well good, because I’ve already signed up.”
He enlisted in the Air Force in Sep. 1985, training as an information systems operator, which kept him more or less behind a computer all day. “He didn’t like it,” she said. “But he had promised my mom he would at least try something safe.”
Chapman kept his word, serving with the 1987th Information Systems Squadron at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado until 1989. But eventually he volunteered for special operations and joined the ranks of Air Force combat controllers (CCT) — a community so small that most people, including some Air Force service-members, don’t even know it exists.
Still, the path to becoming a CCT is on par with other special operations fields: In addition to almost a year of training that certifies them as FAA air traffic controllers, combat controllers learn airborne operations, survival, diving, and other specialized skills. And their training continues even after they are placed alongside groups of Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs, where they are expected to be a team’s guardian angel of sorts, calling in close-air support missions and talking in helicopter rescues from the heavens above.
“Their motto, ‘First There,’ reaffirms the combat controller’s commitment to undertaking the most dangerous missions behind enemy lines by leading the way for other forces to follow,” the service says on its official website.
Chapman’s first tour of duty took him to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan in the early nineties. Then in Oct. 1995, he transferred to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, where he lived with his wife, Valerie, and daughters Madison and Brianna.
But even before 9/11, his family would know little of his work, due to the secrecy it entailed.
“Anytime he deployed somewhere,” Lori said. “I’d say ‘where you going?’ and he’d just say, ‘yep.’” But after the attacks, she knew her brother would be deployed in response. “It was pretty clear,” she said.
“As a daddy, he didn’t want to leave his babies,” his mother, Terry, told The Post. “But as a soldier, he wanted to go and serve his country and, as he said, ‘kick ass!’”
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As Razor 04 made its way back from Gardez, Neil Roberts, the SEAL still stranded on the peak, “defiantly fought” the Al Qaeda fighters closing in on his position until he was overwhelmed, and apparently executed. A Predator drone that had come on station overhead saw him being dragged away by three enemy fighters who attempted to decapitate him, though Roberts’ fellow SEALs were not aware of this.
Shortly before 5 a.m., Razor 04 returned to Takur Ghar and was almost immediately met with a barrage of heavy machine-gun fire. But this time, the pilot dropped into a small pocket of dead space that couldn’t be reached by the DShK machine-gunner’s 12.7x108mm bullets, allowing the six remaining operators to file out of the helicopter’s ramp and finally claim a small piece of Takur Ghar.
The peak was a perfect site for an observation post, or in this case, an Al Qaeda sanctuary. Now on the ground, under heavy fire and trudging through snow, the team could see that enemy fighters had dug trenches and bunkers on the vantage point, allowing them line of sight far into the valley.
Chapman shot and killed at least two enemy fighters shortly after insertion, according to his Air Force Cross. Alongside SEAL Team Leader “Slab,” the pair engaged multiple enemy positions and cleared out a small bunker, before Chapman was hit by enemy fire.
According to his Air Force Cross, Chapman “exchanged fire with the enemy from minimum personal cover until he succumbed to multiple wounds.” At that point, Slab, under heavy machine-gun fire and with grenades being tossed nearby, could see through his night-vision goggles that Chapman’s infrared aiming laser had stopped moving, according to The New York Times. “He’s dead,” Slab told his teammates, before withdrawing down the mountain so the C-130 gunship flying overhead could pound Al Qaeda positions.
But a recent Air Force analysis of video captured by the Predator drone overhead, reported by The Times in 2016, tells a different story. The low-quality drone footage showed one man in a bunker defending himself against two others, eventually killing one with a rifle shot. The Predator feed was later paired with video taken from the C-130, offering a clearer picture of what happened.
“It was really grainy. But there was still somebody up there fighting, and you could see that,” Kenny Longfritz, Chapman’s first sergeant at 24th STS, said of the Predator drone footage he viewed after the battle. There was no doubt in his mind, or among many others in the squadron, that it was John.
As the Times reported, briefing slides prepared by the Air Force said that Chapman was unconscious at the time Slab believed him dead. Minutes after the SEALs moved down the mountain, Chapman came to and crawled into the bunker at around 5:25 a.m., where he sought cover. At 6 a.m., fighters fired a rocket-propelled grenade toward him as another rushed the bunker, which Chapman dispatched with a rifle shot.
A few minutes later, another Al Qaeda fighter attempted to crawl toward Chapman’s position, but the Air Force sergeant killed him in hand-to-hand combat. As the sun began to rise amid the sound of the cavalry coming — Razor 01 and 02 helicopter chalks carrying a quick reaction force of 35 Army Rangers — Chapman rose from the bunker to provide cover fire, but he was struck twice in the chest by Al Qaeda machine-guns, killing him instantly.
“That doesn’t surprise me one bit that he would do something like that,” Longfritz said. “He always put the needs of others in front of his own.”
“Is it within John’s character to go on and do this? Without a question,” Slabinski told The Times. “If John did this stuff, I want him to get recognized.”
In a ceremony at the White House to take place some time this year, he finally will.
Chapman’s family was notified sometime in March that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, according to several sources familiar with the matter. A source familiar with the Medal of Honor awards process told me the time between family notification and the award ceremony in Washington is typically a matter of weeks.
The White House declined to comment.
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Chapman receiving the nation’s highest honor will mark the end of a long road for his family, beginning with the devastating news of his death in 2002, and followed by lingering questions around what really happened on the mountain that have emerged in the years since.
“16 years later and people are still talking about him and asking about him,” his sister Lori said. “And that, to a family member, means more than anyone can imagine.”
The sergeant’s family was initially told he was killed when his helicopter crashed following the initial assault of Takur Ghar, The Hartford Courant reported. His mother was told that he died instantly.
Later, news came that Chapman was indeed on the mountain peak, where he shot and killed a number of fighters before he succumbed to his wounds. But the spot where he was left for dead by the SEALs, according to a survey of the site afterward, was not where his body was later found.
And as drone footage later reviewed by the Air Force showed, Chapman, alone and surrounded, kept fighting back for more than an hour.
“We knew there was more to it then just step off, shoot a couple of people, and get killed,” Lori said.
The split-second decision made by Chief Slabinski to evacuate the peak, in the years since, has remained controversial, which he acknowledged in his interview with The Times: “They’re going to say: ‘Yep, it’s all your fault. You left him up there, behind, alive,’” Slabinski said. (Slabinski could not be reached for comment on this story).
Some in the combat controller community certainly see it that way, according to one CCT source, although others chalk it up as a tough call amid the fog of war. The latter view is held by Chapman’s sister, Lori, who doesn’t fault Slab for his decision to withdraw.
“I’ll never ever believe that Slab left him there on purpose,” she said. “He truly believed that John was dead. And then they did what they needed to do to keep from getting killed themselves.”