Air Force combat controller to receive Medal of Honor posthumously, service’s 1st since Vietnam
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 27, 2018
Editor's note: The presentation of Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman's Medal of Honor is scheduled for Wednesday.
WASHINGTON — An Air Force combat controller killed in an infamous battle with al-Qaida militants in the early months of the war in Afghanistan will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions during that 2002 fight, the White House announced Friday.
President Donald Trump will present the nation’s highest military honor to Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman’s spouse, Valerie Nessel, in a ceremony Aug. 22, according to the White House. The award is an upgrade of the Air Force Cross that Chapman initially received posthumously for his actions on Roberts Ridge in March 2002 as part of an elite special operations team charged with locating and targeting al-Qaida fighters entrenched on Takur Ghar mountain in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.
He will become the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, and just the 19th in the service’s history.
The upgrade of Chapman’s medal has been the subject of speculation for a long time among defense officials, who said the service’s top leaders have recommended the upgrade since at least 2016.
The award is at least partially the result of new drone footage that showed Chapman was not yet dead when the team of Navy SEALs that he was fighting alongside of were extracted from the battle, according to officials. Those SEALs have long insisted Chapman was dead when they left him, including retired SEAL Britt Slabinski, who received the Medal of Honor in May for his actions in the same battle. Slabinski, however, has endorsed Chapman’s nomination for the Medal of Honor, telling officials that Chapman’s actions in the battle ensured the survival of his comrades.
Analysis of the drone footage conducted more than a decade after Chapman’s death indicated the airman was merely unconscious when the SEALs left the battlefield. When he regained consciousness, the video shows he resumed fighting al-Qaida militants approaching him.
“Despite his wounds, [Sgt.] Chapman regained his faculties and continued to fight relentlessly, sustaining a violent engagement with multiple enemy fighters before paying the ultimate sacrifice,” his Medal of Honor citation will read, according to a statement Friday from the Air Force. “In performance of these remarkably heroic actions, he is credited with saving the lives of his teammates.”
That language differs from that of the citation for his Air Force Cross, the second highest valor award an airman can receive. The previous award citation credited Chapman with saving lives by coordinating AC-130 gunship attacks on the fighters attacking the American special operations team, coordinating the extraction helicopter’s landing for his teammates, and eventually risking his life to engage two enemy machine gun positions, sustaining fatal wounds during those actions.
“Chappy,” as his teammates knew him, was one of two airmen awarded the Air Force Cross for actions during the Battle of Roberts Ridge. The other was Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, a pararescueman.
Initially, the special operations team was only charged with reconnaissance to aid a conventional force preparing an attack on the al-Qaida group around Takur Ghar. But the MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying Chapman, Slabinski and other members of SEAL Team 6 – officially Naval Special Warfare Development Group -- was hit by enemy rocket fire as it flew over the mountaintops.
With the rocket’s impact, another SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, fell from the chopper before the pilots crash-landed it into a valley, leaving him stranded atop the 10,000 foot peak amid a mass of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. Slabinski ordered a daring rescue mission up the mountain to recover his comrade.Chapman volunteered to participate, according to the Air Force. That’s when the fight that would last some 17 hours broke out.
“Tech. Sgt. John Chapman fought tenaciously for his nation and his teammates on that hill in Afghanistan,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a statement. “His inspiring story is one of selfless service, courage, perseverance, and honor as he fought side by side with his fellow soldiers and sailors against a determined and dug-in enemy. Tech. Sgt. Chapman represents all that is good, all that is right, and all that is best in our American airmen.”
The Air Force never gave up on seeking the recognition senior leaders believed Chapman deserved, said the service’s senior enlisted leader, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright.
“This is a reflection of our commitment to recognizing the heroic actions of our Airmen,” Wright said. “As Chapman’s story reminds us, we have a sacred duty to honor the actions and sacrifices of all our servicemembers. I share our airmen’s deepest gratitude to the Chapman family, as well as the family members of all those who gave their lives serving our great nation.”