As a Navy SEAL receives the Medal of Honor, frustrations remain about a related case
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: May 23, 2018
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 afternoon, the president will award retired Master Chief Britt 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-Qaida 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 Roberts.
The White House ceremony will recognize Slabinski's actions on March 3-4, 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.
But another part of the story is unlikely to be told in detail at the White House this week: Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, one of Slabinski's deceased teammates, also has been nominated for the Medal of Honor. But the White House and Pentagon have not yet 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 an evacuation of other SEALs in the face of a vastly larger enemy force. At the time, 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 and continued to fight off al-Qaida fighters when he regained consciousness. That finding, first reported by the New York Times, marked the first time that the military had based a valor award nomination on drone video footage. Traditionally, cases rely primarily on eyewitness accounts.
The cases center on two sons of New England who 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, Massachusetts, completed a 25-year career in 2014. He was considered a legend in the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and received a Navy Cross - second only to the Medal of Honor - in recognition of his actions on Roberts Ridge. More recently, he has been dogged by media reports suggesting that 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, Connecticut, 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 that 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 it had any past valor cases that merited an upgrade out of concern that the service was grading itself too difficultly, a contention that many service members have made since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 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, Wyoming. "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 a source 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 media interviews leading up to their ceremony, but requests for Slabinski by The Washington Post have been declined and no other new public remarks from him have been published. That stands in contrast to 2016, when Navy Senior Chief Edward Byers, discussed the December 2012 rescue operation in Afghanistan in he earned the Medal of Honor prior to receiving the award. U.S. officials had previously acknowledged that the operation was carried out by members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the official name of SEAL Team 6.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Rob Manning, declined to comment on the Chapman 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 individuals 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."