Two Chinook helicopters carrying elite U.S. troops roared through the chilly Afghan air above a mountaintop when disaster struck. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire ripped into one of the lumbering aircraft as it approached a landing zone, ejecting a Navy SEAL Team 6 member and prompting a rescue operation.
On Thursday, President Trump awarded retired Master Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor, for his actions 16 years ago on 10,000-foot Takur Ghar mountain. The Navy SEAL is credited with braving withering fire from Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in waist-deep snow while leading the rest of his team — call sign “Mako 30” — in search of missing Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts.
“Britt wants the country to know that for him, the recognition he is about to receive is an honor that falls on the whole team — he wants you folks to know that, on the whole team,” Trump said at a ceremony at the White House. “When every American warrior who fought the forces of terror on that snowy Afghan ridge, each of them has entered the eternal chronicle of American valor and American bravery. Britt, we salute you, we thank you, we thank God for making you a United States SEAL.”
Slabinski was recognized for his actions in March 2002 in what became known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge. The operation has spawned books, prompted study at U.S. warfare schools and been depicted in a video game, in large part because of its dire nature. Seven Americans, including Roberts, were killed, and the operation was scrutinized afterward for its flawed planning and communication at more senior levels.
“I’ll accept that medal with great humility, because all my guys followed me up the mountain that day, as did the aircrews that kept the flights coming, and the Rangers who came not because they knew us, but because they knew we were in trouble,” Slabinski said in an interview published by Breaking Defense on Thursday before the ceremony. “In many ways I’m uncomfortable being singled out because when you wrap your head around that whole battle, every one of them deserved this medal. That’s no exaggeration.”
But there is another part of the story: Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, one of Slabinski’s deceased teammates, also has been nominated for the Medal of Honor. The White House and Pentagon have not disclosed whether the president will award it.
In a sad, cruel twist in Chapman’s case, the Air Force concluded that he was forced to fight to his death alone after Slabinski ordered that SEALs evacuate in the face of a vastly larger enemy force. Slabinski believed that Chapman was dead, the Air Force found.
But the service, using Predator drone video that was not originally considered, concluded in 2016 that Chapman was probably unconscious at the time and continued to fight off al-Qaeda fighters when he regained consciousness. That finding, first reported by the New York Times, marked the first time the military had based a valor award nomination on drone video footage. Traditionally, cases rely primarily on witness accounts.
The two sons of New England grew up as strangers about 50 miles apart, but are connected by their actions during the opening months of the war in Afghanistan.
Slabinski, originally of Northampton, Mass., completed a 25-year career in 2014. He was considered a legend in the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and received a Navy Cross — the second-highest award for valor — in recognition of his actions on Takur Ghar mountain. More recently, he has been dogged by media reports suggesting he mishandled enemy remains, including a story by the Intercept that included previously unpublished audio in which a voice said to be his describes shooting one dead enemy fighter up to 20 times in the legs and calls it a form of therapy.
Chapman, a native of Windsor Locks, Conn., posthumously received the Air Force Cross for his valor in 2003 and already was considered perhaps his service’s greatest modern war hero. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. He was a combat controller, an enlisted airman who specializes in communicating with pilots to guide airstrikes on target in the middle of hair-raising special operations.
Deborah James, who served as Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, said in an interview that she approved a packet for Chapman’s nomination in 2016, convinced the totality of his actions recognized by the Air Force Cross along with the actions captured afterward in the drone footage deserved the Medal of Honor.
“These ISR feeds to me were like forensic evidence,” James said, using an acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Forty years ago, nobody knew what DNA was. But 40 years later, cold cases are solved because of that evidence. To me, this was the equivalent.”
James had directed Air Force Special Operations Command to review whether any past valor cases merited an upgrade out of concern that the service was grading itself too difficultly, a contention that many service members have made since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The assessment came back with a recommendation to upgrade some awards to levels below the Medal of Honor and to consider elevating Chapman’s decoration to the award, James said.
But in allegations first reported this month by Newsweek, securing approval for the Chapman case was difficult in part because in 2016, James said, some witnesses in the battle declined to sign the sworn statements they gave shortly after the battle. James said the top officer in U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, assured her in the summer of 2016 that he would support Chapman’s nomination, but later requested an amendment asking that the findings based on the video not be considered.
James — and at least one member of Chapman’s family — consider the actions an attempt to downplay what happened on Takur Ghar mountain. They say Slabinski did his best and deserves the Medal of Honor but are frustrated at what they see as attempts to cover the truth that the SEAL was faced with the difficult call to withdraw from the mountain without Chapman.
“Nobody thinks that he did anything other than his absolute best on the worst day of his life,” James said of Slabinski. “He thought he was dead, and he was responsible for four or five others that he was trying to save.”
Chapman’s older sister, Lori Chapman Longfritz, declined to talk about what the military has told her family in recent days. But she “wants the truth told” about her brother, and said she is “glad that he’ll finally be getting what he earned 16 years ago,” raising the possibility that he also will receive the Medal of Honor.
“I’ve always said that I could never blame anybody for what happened on that mountain,” said Longfritz, of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I was never there, I’ve never been shot at, and I’ve never been in deep snow like that. But I don’t think they’ve been entirely forthcoming in the 16 years since then, and I can definitely hold them accountable for that.”
A spokesman for Thomas, Navy Capt. Jason Salata, referred all questions about the general’s involvement in the case to the office of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Several U.S. military officials said privately that it is assumed that Chapman’s Medal of Honor also has been approved, but that they are not sure how it is being handled. A report by Task & Purpose in April said the White House informed Chapman’s family in March that a Medal of Honor was approved for him, citing an individual close to the process. But the White House has declined to comment.
Considering the sensitivities, there’s weariness in the Pentagon that so many details about the Chapman case have spilled out into public and a desire to closely manage the presentation of facts about Slabinski’s Medal of Honor. Air Force and Navy officials have referred questions about the case to the White House and Mattis’s office.
Typically, Medal of Honor recipients sit for several media interviews leading up to their ceremony, but requests for Slabinski by The Washington Post have been declined. That stands in contrast to 2016, when Navy Senior Chief Edward C. Byers Jr. discussed the December 2012 rescue operation in Afghanistan that led to his Medal of Honor. U.S. officials had previously acknowledged the operation was carried out by members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the official name of SEAL Team 6.
Slabinski, asked about the possibility of Chapman fighting on after he was left, told Breaking Defense that there was no doubt in his mind that his friend was dead.
“But my first thought [on hearing of that possibility] was that it would be completely in John’s character to have done that. That was his DNA,” Slabinski said. “That was my whole team’s DNA. It’s not what I saw. Not what I experienced. But it was within John Chapman’s character to have done those things.”
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Rob Manning, declined to comment on Chapman’s nomination but said in a statement that Mattis “fairly and thoroughly evaluated the Medal of Honor nomination” for Slabinski against “long-standing Medal of Honor criteria.”
Manning also acknowledged frustrations in the Slabinski case.
“Each recommendation is carefully considered based on the merits of the individual’s actions, eyewitness accounts, and other supporting evidence,” Manning said. “The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect for our nation’s most prestigious military decoration. We are well aware of the passionate arguments that have surrounded this nomination, but no one should think that these issues were not given due consideration in our exhaustive process.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
This story was originally published Wednesday night and updated Thursday with remarks from the ceremony and comments from an interview with Slabinski.