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My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead
"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.
They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.
As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.
But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.
The compact version of the rest is such: a team member fell from their helicopter after it was hit with rocket-propelled grenades. The pilot made a controlled crash landing many kilometers away and plans were hurriedly devised to rescue their fallen teammate.
When John and his team returned a couple of hours later, their helicopter was assaulted with gunfire and RPGs, though it was still able to land. After stepping over Slab, who had fallen immediately in the deep snow, John advanced on one bunker and killed two enemy fighters within, then moved toward a second bunker farther uphill.
Shortly after Slab caught up with him, they received fire and John went down. Slab never tried to ascertain if John was alive or dead before regrouping with the rest of the team and escaping over the side of the mountain, leaving him behind.
John regained consciousness about 15 minutes later only to find himself abandoned and surrounded on three sides. He fended off multiple hand-to-hand, RPG, and machine gun assaults for the next hour. At the end of the hour-long fight for his life, battling about two dozen really bad guys, and as the QRF was attempting to land on the mountaintop, he made the decision to take the focus off of the incoming helicopter, if even for a few seconds.
John chose to expose himself to fire, as battered and shot up as he was, in an effort to take out a machine gun focused on the helicopter. His sacrifice was selfless — and final.
Chapman with a child in Afghanistan in an undated photoPhoto: US Air Force
The entire story of what happened in the early morning hours of that fateful day is chronicled in Alone at Dawn, a book I co-authored with Dan Schilling, a retired Air Force Combat Controller. Alone at Dawn also gives a brief introduction into who Combat Controllers are and what they do, as well as explaining how the mission on Takur Ghar shouldn't have happened, given the intelligence already gathered by boots that had been on the ground for weeks. I am extremely proud of the combined effort that ended with our New York Times best seller, but its beginning was far and away different from the resulting book.
After John died, I wanted to write about him — about the boy who lived his life the way he died — for others and on his terms. I wanted the world to know the integrity he held and the way he understood the old adage that there is no "I" in "team." Those qualities (and more) were constants throughout his life, from a tiny toddler to the man who gave his life for others. It was what I hoped people who never knew him would understand.
I also knew that the truth of John's actions went deeper than what we had been told when he died. We were initially told that, when his helo landed, he stepped over his "leader," took out two enemy fighters in a bunker, and was summarily killed immediately after. But we knew there was more to it. Much more.
When I finally forged ahead with my idea, a retired Combat Control friend, who had been recruited to help me, happened to have lunch with Dan Schilling. He offered to help. Though I had never heard his name before that day, I trusted my friend so, by extension, I trusted Dan and agreed to work with him. My idea about John's story quickly became much bigger than what I had anticipated. Dan convinced me, and rightly so, that to tell John's story we needed to introduce Combat Control, too. Our book took on several titles throughout the process, but we ultimately decided on Alone at Dawn, because John found himself alone in the dawn hours of March 4, 2002.
Being versed in all things Combat Control, Dan wrote most of the military parts of our book while I was the first-line ruthless copy editor, going over every word and paragraph, ensuring it made sense and making his writing even better. Weaving a handful of my stories about John into the brief history of Combat Control was the precursor to the truth of what happened leading up to and during what has been called "the battle of Roberts Ridge", so named for the fallen SEAL, Neil Roberts.
A trench line on top of Takur Ghar after the battle.Photo: DoD
I used to say I could never blame Slab for what happened on Takur Ghar on that ill-fated night, but after discovering all of John's truth through the research Dan did for our book, I feel justified in holding both Slab and Szymanski accountable for decisions made before, during, and after March 4 — decisions that got seven good men killed for no good reason; decisions that have been included in Alone at Dawn so the reader can draw their own conclusion.
The following is an excerpt of Chapter 21 from our book, Alone At Dawn. It comes after John has been left for dead by the team whose lives he had saved and by a team leader who had conspired with his command to use a separate frequency to communicate directly with each other instead of with all forces in that area.
* * *
John Chapman must have become aware of himself, gradually … and painfully. He was lying in the snow, crumpled on top of his own legs. He wasn't sure what had happened, not exactly.
It was dark but his NVGs were still on. The night sky was clear and the air bitterly cold. He needed to figure out what had happened. And he couldn't ignore the pain. A cursory check would reveal two gunshot wounds in his torso. He ached, not only from the impact of the AK-47 bullets, but also from the ungodly pain in his abdomen. The pain was intense. Was he bleeding internally? It would be difficult to say what damage lay beneath his uniform. Since none of the team had worn body armor, the rounds tore through his tissue like a hot knife into a pat of butter.
His cursory self-inspection complete, John needed to focus on his situation. A quick scan revealed his surroundings. Next to him was the trench from which the Al Qaeda fighters had attacked him as he'd charged uphill. Two bodies lay dark and lifeless in its recesses. Nearby was the body of another fighter, the man who'd shot him.
To his left was the large rock outcropping where he'd last seen Slab. Where the hell were Slab and the others? Were they dead? Or had they left him for dead?
Gunfire from Bunker 2 above brought the situation into instant focus. The PKM was firing, but not at him. Answering fire from far behind and below, easily identifiable, answered his SEAL question. They were down there somewhere – not far, but a lifetime away for a wounded man. He couldn't see them, but maybe he could reach them on his MBITR.
He switched from the fire control frequency to a battlefield common frequency. He didn't know where Slab and his team were or how many might still be alive, although clearly they weren't on the summit any longer. But there were other Combat Controllers in the vicinity and all CCT viewed battlefield common as their private comms freq.
"Any station, any station, this is Mako Three Zero Charlie." And he waited alone in the dark.
It's nearly impossible to understand the implications of true abandonment. The worst thing for a soldier is to be left on the battlefield, and that is exactly what happened to John. The one absolute of combat among soldiers is: Never leave a comrade behind or to the enemy. Heroics, courage, cowardice … these things can vary, even within an individual, depending on the circumstances and the day. The truth for men in combat is that courage is nothing but the necessity of action when a comrade is in trouble. To not act is cowardice.
The unbreakable rule had been broken. For men who are willing to fight and contend with the fear of capture by an enemy whose objective is to torture and then kill their captives, abandonment by their brothers strains credulity. To the individual, this new reality comes crashing through the mind's barriers. "This can't be happening."
One can only imagine the impact on Chapman when the realization of abandonment hit home.
* * *
What must it have been like for John when he regained consciousness and found his "teammates" had left him? It makes me sad and angry when I try to imagine the shock he must have felt, if only for a moment.
From my standpoint, Alone at Dawn was written to share who my brother was and to shout his truth to the world; information that Szymanski, Slab, and the rest of John's "team" tried to hide through lies and other means. They should have just come clean because the truth almost always finds a way to reveal itself.
John's truth is … he didn't have to go to Afghanistan with that SEAL team, but he did because, as he put it, "They trained with me. They're used to me. I have to go."
John's truth is … he didn't have to go with his SEAL team when they decided to go back to rescue or retrieve Roberts, but he was part of the team and demanded to be included.
John's truth is … by stepping over Slab and taking out the closest machine gun nest, he saved the lives of his teammates. He gave them time to exit the helicopter, split up, and find some sort of cover.
John's truth is … shot, riddled with shrapnel, bruised and bloodied, he didn't have to leave the safety of Bunker 2 and expose himself to gunfire when the QRF helo was lumbering up the mountain, but he did because he knew they'd have no chance if he didn't lay down suppressive fire and attempt to take out the machine gun firing upon them.
John was awarded the Air Force Cross in January 2003 for his actions on Takur Ghar. In August 2018, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor and he was posthumously promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant.
Even the Medal of Honor and its journey to the White House for final signature turned out to be a saga of epic and disgusting proportions perpetrated by none other than Szymanski and John's SEAL team "teammates." Alone at Dawn details the unsuccessful efforts to squash John's medal by the men he not only saved, but who then left him to fight and die alone.
John's truth is …. he is a true American hero — the only one to come out of Mako-30 on that awful morning of 4 March 2002.
Lori Chapman Longfritz is the coauthor of Alone at Dawn and the sister of Air Force Master Sgt. John Chapman, who was awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) on Aug. 22, 2018.
The excerpt comes from the book Alone At Dawn: Medal Of Honor Recipient John Chapman And The Untold Story Of The World's Deadliest Special Operations Force by Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Longfritz. Copyright © 2019 by Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Longfritz. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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