Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, 36, was killed soon after military action began in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Chapman died in combat March 4, 2002. Sixteen years later, the Pope Air Field special operations airman received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Why did the honor take so long?He was alone atop an Afghan mountain suffering from bullet wounds to his legs and surrounded by hundreds of al-Qaida militants. Chapman used his final moments of life to make sure other American troops had a chance to survive a battle in which they were significantly outnumbered. Chapman – believed dead when his comrades fled the mountaintop amid heavy fire – awoke from unconsciousness and fought off enemy attackers for an hour while a helicopter carrying an assault force of Army Rangers approached.
Chapman, from the protection of a chest-high bunker, did the unthinkable – charged forward, turning his back on an enemy machine gun, and fired on two fighters preparing to launch rocket-propelled grenades at the incoming Chinook, killing them both. He was mortally wounded by the machinegun fire. For that action on the night of March 3 through the morning of March 4, 2002, President Donald Trump presented his family the Medal of Honor encased in a shadowbox earlier this month.
Chapman had been attached as an Air Force combat controller to the Navy’s SEAL Team 6. He and fallen SEAL Petty Officer Neil Roberts had been left behind on the mountain. Early evidence about Chapman’s final hours was that a SEAL NCO incorrectly declared Chapman dead during the attack, The New York Times was the first to report. SEAL team leader, Master Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, had ordered his outgunned and heavily bloodied team to withdraw.
Slabinski, who received the Medal of Honor for his own actions earlier in that battle, credited Chapman with saving the lives of his teammates and endorsed him for the Medal of Honor.
Chapman was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest Air Force award for valor.
For many years, some Air Force officials believed Chapman deserved the Medal of Honor. But until a lengthy two-and-a-half-year investigation into Chapman’s heroism was completed, that went unproven.
Chapman was assigned to the U.S. Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Field. It is an Air Force component of Fort Bragg’s Joint Special Operations Command. Combat Controllers are skilled battlefield airmen who are often assigned individually to special operations teams to provide expert battlefield airstrike control and communications capabilities.
Evidence compiled in 2016 by a team of 17 Air Force special operators proved Chapman had indeed lived longer than originally reported. He continued to fight and likely intentionally gave his own life to give others a better chance to survive. New technology used in an examination of videos from aircraft flying overhead indicated that Chapman killed the two al-Qaida fighters before “dying in an attempt to protect arriving reinforcements,” The New York Times reported.
The review also relied heavily on video recorded by a predator drone overhead throughout much of the fight, according to an Air Force special tactics officer who was involved in the investigation. What the team found was “awe inspiring” and left little doubt that Chapman’s actions deserved the military’s highest honor for battlefield valor, the officer said.
Along with Chapman, six other Americans died during what became known as the battle of Roberts Ridge. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made the recommendation to upgrade Chapman’s Air Force Cross earlier this year.
Photo: John Chapman