Moments after Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts fell from a battle-damaged helicopter onto a snowy mountain in Afghanistan, Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman and his Navy SEAL teammates made a fateful decision: They would scramble back to Roberts on another aircraft, knowing that al-Qaeda fighters were closing in.
The ensuing battle at Takur Ghar on March 4, 2002, was one of the ugliest near the outset of the Afghanistan war, and it was examined at length by the U.S. military after the deaths of Roberts, Chapman and five other U.S. service members. But for years, official accounts left out a major detail: Chapman, alone on a battlefield, was killed after knowingly stepping into the sights of an al-Qaeda machine gun team, likely to stop enemy fighters from shooting down an incoming U.S. military helicopter.
On Wednesday, Chapman posthumously became the first member of the Air Force since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. In a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Trump credited him with fighting to the death and then handed a frame holding the award to Chapman’s widow, Valerie Nessel.
“In that final act of supreme courage, John gave his life for his fellow warriors,” Trump said. “Through his extraordinary sacrifice, John helped save more than 20 American service members, some of whom are here today.”
The ceremony brought to a close a years-long discussion of whether Chapman had been appropriately recognized for his valor. The Air Force combat controller, already wounded, was alone in his last hour after Navy SEALs fighting alongside him withdrew under fire to assist wounded colleagues, the Air Force found in 2016. The SEALs thought he was dead, they later said.
On the basis of Chapman’s actions early in the battle, he posthumously was awarded the Air Force Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor — in 2003 for actions that included charging up a steep hill under fire in the battle and killing at least two militants inside a bunker on top.
However, the Air Force more recently determined following a 30-month investigation that Chapman actually had been knocked unconscious in the initial firefight, and awoke afterward to continue fighting. Former Air Force secretary Deborah James recommended an upgrade to the Medal of Honor after an examination of Predator drone video footage and interviews with service members who monitored his final moments by radio and powerful aircraft sensors.
“John was the only American that was alive on the mountaintop, and there was somebody fighting for an hour,” an Air Force officer involved in the investigation told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his unit. “Somebody on the top of the bunker continued to engage the enemy.”
The investigation opened old wounds in the close-knit Special Operations world, as the New York Times first reported two years ago. The Pentagon long ago recognized Chapman, Air Force Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham and Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski with awards just below the Medal of Honor for their valor in the battle, but it was forced to confront the conclusion that the SEAL team led by Slabinski withdrew thinking that Chapman was dead.
James has accused senior U.S. Special Operations officers of slow-rolling Chapman’s upgrade out of concern for how it would reflect on the SEALs. The White House announced Chapman’s Medal of Honor in July only after recognizing Slabinski, who went on to retire as a master chief petty officer, with the same award in May. Slabinski and Chapman fought together early in the battle.
U.S. military officials have declined to comment on the controversy. Slabinski told Breaking Defense in an interview in May that he was “looking for some sign, some movement, any sign of life” from Chapman in the battle and that “I didn’t get anything out of John” before his SEAL team withdrew.
The Air Force determined that in Chapman’s final stand, he fended off al-Qaeda fighters attempting to flank him in a bunker as his ammunition ran low. Eventually, he exited the bunker to take aim at insurgents preparing to launch rocket-propelled grenades at a CH-47 helicopter arriving as part of a rescue operation. Chapman was mortally wounded in the back near his right shoulder blade by machine-gun fire.
The helicopter was hit by enemy gunfire and made a controlled landing. However, the situation could have been worse had Chapman not taken aim at the ambushers, Air Force officials said.
Also killed in the battle were Roberts, Cunningham, and four U.S. soldiers. They are Sgt. Bradley Crose, Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, Cpl. Matthew Commons and Spec. Marc Anderson — all members of a force that responded to the crisis.
Slabinski was among those who attended the ceremony Wednesday, and was recognized by Trump. The president invited Nessel onto a dais to receive the award on Chapman’s behalf, and she was joined by Chapman’s mother, Terry, and the the couple’s daughters, Madison and Brianna. They were 5 and 3 when their father was killed.
Nessel blew a kiss toward the sky and waved upward while holding the framed award, a smile on her face.
Chapman, 36, was an elite Air Force combat controller assigned to Slabinski’s SEAL team to call in airstrikes. Chapman, of Windsor Locks, Conn., and Slabinski, of Northampton, Mass., were friends and grew up less than 50 miles from each other.
Nessel told reporters before the ceremony that she does not believe her husband was left behind by the SEALs. Chapman receiving the Medal of Honor validates how significant his final actions were, she said.
“Each of those men were doing what they were trained to do,” Nessel said beforehand. “You’re at 10,000-foot, in waist-deep snow. You can’t Monday-morning quarterback anything. Each of those men are heroes. They are.”
This story was originally published at 11:59 p.m. Aug. 21, and updated after the White House ceremony Aug. 22.