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After 13 years, CIA honors Green Beret killed on secret Afghanistan mission

Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman aboard a CH-53 in Pakistan in November 2001. (Courtesy of Scott Satterlee)
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When Nathan Ross Chapman became the first military casualty to die by enemy fire during the war in Afghanistan, the only American flag available for his casket was a patch torn off the uniform of an airman loading his coffin for the long trip home. He was buried on Jan. 11, 2002, a week after his death, with full military honors in Tahoma National Cemetery, Wash.

It took another 13 years for the CIA to recognize on its Memorial Wall that Chapman, an Army Green Beret, was also one of its own — the sergeant first class had been officially detailed to the agency in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks and died acting as a CIA paramilitary team’s communications specialist.

Gen. John Campbell, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, addressed NATO soldiers stationed in Afghanistan on the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Video: Reuters)

Chapman’s death was a watershed event for a country that didn’t know it was headed into a seemingly endless war, where the news of those lost would turn into a kind of white noise for many Americans. The first of its kind in Afghanistan, his death drew national attention, including a televised funeral.

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Much of Chapman’s story and that of the secret agency team he was assigned to has never been told, and the agency continues to say nothing about him.

At a ceremony at CIA headquarters on May 18, 2015, the agency unveiled an engraved marble star to mark his death in the line of service, but like many others in the wall’s accompanying Book of Honor, his name was left absent. The addition of that star for service in 2002 prompted The Post to examine the background to the honor, and why it had taken so long to be conferred.

In the years after Chapman died, the agency honored at least one other service member, a Marine officer killed in Iraq in 2007 while detailed to an agency paramilitary unit. The Marine was later memorialized with a star, yet it took more than a decade for Chapman to receive his place on the famed wall.

“We didn’t even know anything was going on relative to that star; we didn’t expect it and we didn’t know anything about it,” Chapman’s father, Will, said during a recent interview in his home in Texas. He said the recognition from the CIA was part of his son’s final chapter, and he was grateful for it. It also recognizes the pivotal role that Special Operations forces played with the CIA in the early days of the Afghan war.

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Following the memorial ceremony in 2015, CIA Director John Brennan, along with his deputies, privately met with the Chapmans on the agency’s seventh floor. He apologized for the long wait but gave no explanation for why it took more than 13 years for Chapman to get his place on the wall, the father said.

“He just said it should have been done a long time ago.”

The CIA declined to comment.

Chapman, 31, left behind a wife, Renae, and two children, Brandon and Amanda, who, at the time, were 1 and 2 years old. Renae Chapman was unavailable to comment for this story.

A veteran who jumped into Panama as a Ranger and who served in Iraq and Haiti, Chapman was also a qualified combat scuba diver and sniper. Among his peers he was known as a consummate professional and as the life of the party with a penchant for quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

Chapman had transferred back to Fort Lewis, Wash., from Okinawa just before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“America’s going to war over this,” he told his father in the weeks that followed. “And they’re not going without me.”

“And then he was gone,” the elder Chapman recalled.

An unconventional team of elites

Built like a linebacker with a square jaw, narrow eyes and a sly smile, Chapman went to war as a member of what the CIA called Team Hotel — a six-man unit composed of three Special Forces soldiers, two CIA paramilitary officers and a CIA contractor. Chapman and two other Green Berets were selected from more than 1,300 soldiers in 1st Special Forces Group. For their mission in Afghanistan, the CIA needed communications specialists and medics, and almost immediately following the 9/11 attacks it tapped 1st Group to help fill that requirement, said Lt. Gen. David Fridovich, who was, at the time, the group’s commander and a colonel.

Chapman’s assignment to Hotel reflected the agency’s rapidly expanding relationship with the U.S. military, according to Henry Crumpton, the leader of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center task force that led the war in Afghanistan. It was a relationship born out of necessity in order to field an effective unconventional force in a new and entirely unconventional war.

After purchasing thousands of dollars in outdoor supplies from area sporting goods stores and requesting the weapons and equipment the team would need in Afghanistan, the six men spent the remainder of October bouncing between the CIA’s Camp Peary — better known as The Farm — in Williamsburg, Va., and the agency’s headquarters.

Chapman was responsible for assembling the team’s communications equipment. At the time, the process of interfacing satellite radios and computers was a new discipline, but it was something Chapman had already mastered. He was known throughout 1st Special Forces group as the best in his field, earning the reputation during repeated deployments to places such as Thailand and Malaysia with Special Forces teams.

Aside from setting up the radios, Chapman was also instructed on a computer program called ArcView — a piece of software that allowed CIA and military units to see what was happening on the battlefield in real time.

“He never took himself too seriously, even with all the crap we were throwing at him,” said Ken Stiles, the CIA targeting officer for all of the agency’s operations in Afghanistan.

In the run-up to Hotel’s departure, other CIA and Special Forces teams had already been scattered throughout Afghanistan. Team Jawbreaker, the first element to go in, had linked up with parts of the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban, along with teams Bravo and Charlie. Team Echo had made contact with future Afghan president Hamid Karzai. In December, teams Juliet and Romeo would go into Tora Bora, hoping to corner Osama bin Laden in the craggy mountain passes near the Pakistan border.

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But before Hotel would join its sister elements in Afghanistan, Chapman and the rest of the team would first fly to Jacobabad, Pakistan. The team soon began trying to work a deal with the Pakistani military to get to their side of the border south of the Afghan city of Jalalabad in an attempt to box in and find bin Laden, according to Scott Satterlee, a Special Forces medic detailed to Hotel with Chapman.

With the Pakistani military demanding more training and equipment than the small team was able to provide and offering little knowledge of the lawless border region where Hotel was trying to go, the deal fell through. As things unraveled in Pakistan, Afghan forces, their path paved by devastating U.S. airstrikes, seized Kabul. Just days after Thanksgiving, Team Hotel left Pakistan for Afghanistan’s capital.

Hotel would stay in Kabul for roughly a month, spending Christmas there. A detachment of operators from Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, would bring the team to 11 members for an upcoming mission in Khost, a rugged town on Afghanistan’s eastern border.

Christmas was the last time Chapman called home, his father recalled. He didn’t tell them where he was, just that he was safe. He passed the phone around to his mother Lynn, and to Keith Chapman, his older brother who was recently married. His grandmother and grandfather also managed to get on the line.

“I said to him at the end of the conversation, I’m sorry you’re not able to be with your family,” his father said.

“I know, Dad,” he replied. “But I’m with my second family, and they’re a great bunch of guys.”

Behind enemy lines

Roughly a week later, Hotel loaded onto one of the CIA’s Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters and flew the 90 miles to Khost. According to Satterlee, the agency had to pay its way into the town, offering large sums of money to one of the tribes in exchange for admission and some protection.

Hotel would go in and “plant the flag” for the CIA and deny al-Qaeda a base of operations, according to a CIA officer present during the team’s operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert operation. They were the first Americans there since the war began.

The team set up, along with some of their newly acquired Afghan escorts, a rudimentary base of operations in an old Russian schoolhouse in the middle of town during the final days of the year. The night before Chapman’s death, a small four-man element from Hotel slipped into the darkness to conduct reconnaissance on an abandoned Soviet airfield a few miles away, returning after taking small-arms fire.

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The airfield would later be named after Chapman and was the site of a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in 2009.

The next morning, cold and cloudless, Hotel’s team leader along with a senior CIA officer who had been sent to the area held a meeting with some of the tribal leaders at a nearby abandoned government building. The meeting started poorly, according to the CIA officer. The tribe’s representatives erupted into heated argument, but after tea and a pledge by the CIA to help rebuild the town, the meeting closed on somewhat good terms, said the officer.

That afternoon, Hotel loaded into four white Toyota HiLux pickup trucks along with a handful of Afghan escorts and headed to what they thought was an al-Qaeda safe house located in town. The agency had intercepted communications coming from the building.

“Us being there wasn’t accomplishing anything, besides maybe getting us into more trouble,” Satterlee said.

The team got back in their trucks and headed down one of the only paved roads in Khost. As they came into town, the road turned into a wash. The first three trucks went down and out and headed back toward the schoolhouse. As the fourth truck dipped into the culvert, now roughly a hundred yards away from the next vehicle in the convoy, three men opened up with Kalashnikovs, each dumping their entire magazines into the last truck from roughly 30 feet away.

In that truck’s bed was Chapman, a CIA paramilitary officer and the team’s lone CIA contractor. An Afghan was driving. Two rounds slammed into the paramilitary officer’s chest, tearing through his extra ammunition magazines and his soft body armor. The bullet that killed Chapman shattered his pelvis and severed his femoral artery. It was unclear who returned fire, said Satterlee, but when they inventoried Chapman’s gear later that day, the magazine in his M4 carbine was empty with its bolt locked to the rear — evidence that he had expended every round he could before collapsing from blood loss.

Chapman and the paramilitary officer slumped down, and the Afghan driver gunned it, making it back to the schoolhouse in just over a minute and a half. By the time Satterlee and the rest of the team got to the back of the truck, it was awash in Chapman’s blood, and he was unconscious.

With the agency’s lumbering Mi-17 transport helicopter flying from Kabul — a roughly 45-minute flight from Khost — the team worked furiously to keep Chapman alive. Satterlee did the best he could by stuffing the wound with gauze while another team member knelt on Chapman’s navel. But five minutes before the Russian helicopter touched down in a wheat field next to the school, Chapman stopped breathing.

The paramilitary officer, although severely injured with multiple sucking chest wounds, would survive.

Satterlee helped slide Chapman into his sleeping bag and loaded him into the back of the helicopter. It was 5 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2002.

It is unclear exactly who shot Chapman and why. According to Satterlee, the gunmen were part of one of the tribes trying to extort more money from the Americans for protection, while the CIA officer interviewed for this article said they were possibly linked to the Haqqanis — a powerful faction that had already sworn to fight the United States and would continue to fight U.S. troops for years to come.

“He always knew how to find his way into the action,” his father said. “That’s why he went in the military, to do this stuff. … But he knew the risk involved.”

The Army awarded Chapman a Bronze Star with a V for valor, and the CIA would posthumously give him an intelligence star, according to his father. The U.S. Special Forces Association in Thailand renamed itself after Chapman, and a mural of the slain Green Beret adorns the wall of its headquarters.

“The mystique went away, and reality showed up when Nate died,” said his former teammate, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Koehler. “It took the Superman T-shirt from every one of us who thought we were invincible.”

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