You are the owner of this article.

featured

Peak of Courage: Connecticut Native John Chapman Could Be Awarded Medal of Honor

  • 20 min to read

Editor's note: This story was updated in May 2018 to account for new developments.

Under heavy fire, John Chapman charged off the ramp of a Chinook helicopter, tailing his team leader Britt “Slab” Slabinski. Just off the ramp, Slabinski fell, tripped up by the thigh-deep snow that covered the ground. Chapman pushed ahead of him on the Afghan mountaintop, charging into the cold, dark night. As he ran, he fired his M4 automatic at a well-fortified enemy.

A member of the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, Chapman, 36, was a technical sergeant embedded with a SEAL Team 6 reconnaissance team. A combat controller, he manned a long-distance radio and was tasked with calling in and coordinating air strikes on missions with SEALs and other special operations forces on covert missions. Ordinarily, rather than fire his weapon, his primary job would be to man his radio and call in air support, but this was no ordinary mission.

It was March 2002 and the chopper had brought the Windsor Locks native and five members of SEAL Team 6 to this remote Afghanistan mountaintop to rescue their teammate, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts. The SEAL had been left stranded after falling out of a helicopter while the team had attempted to take the mountaintop earlier in the night.

Splitting into three pairs, the six-man team began assaulting the high ground to the north of the ridge where two enemy fighters had taken cover behind a large rock and tree. Chapman was paired with Slabinski, who had fallen, putting Chapman in the lead. Chapman and Slabinski killed two enemy fighters in a makeshift bunker near the tree. But as the U.S. fighters approached the bunker, they were assaulted by a barrage of bullets from another bunker nearby. One of these bullets hit Chapman, who fell about six feet to Slabinski’s right. Looking at him with night-vision goggles, Slabinski could see an aiming laser from Chapman’s rifle moving about as he breathed.

The team was under heavy machine-gun fire with limited cover, and two other SEALs under Slabinski’s command had already been hit. Slabinski knew they needed to get away, and fast. Calling a retreat, he looked back at Chapman and saw the laser was no longer moving. He climbed over Chapman, getting no response, and then joined the rest of the team as they literally slid down the slope away from the enemy. Slabinski didn’t have time to check for Chapman’s pulse, but was nearly certain one of his Air Force brethren was dead.

Shortly after this desperate retreat, murky footage from a Predator drone monitoring the mountaintop showed an individual firing from bunker one, near where Chapman had been thought killed. This individual fought fiercely for more than an hour after the SEAL team left.

There has long been speculation that the person who continued the fight was Chapman. But there have been skeptics. In the 2006 book about the battle, Roberts Ridge, author Malcolm MacPherson called the theory the fighter was Chapman the “Lazarus syndrome” and dismissed it as people wanting see “what they believed to be true — indeed what they needed to be true.”

The theory MacPherson favored was that it was a friendly-fire incident between al-Qaida forces. But now, 14 years after Chapman became the first Connecticut native to die in the conflict in Afghanistan, new analysis of the drone and other aerial footage of the battle using cutting-edge, image-analysis technology has led Air Force officials to conclude it was Chapman who continued to fight. The heroic final moments of his life have spurred the Air Force secretary and a group of congressmen led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal to push for posthumously awarding Chapman the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration.

‘Do the Right Thing…’

Chapman grew up in Windsor Locks and was one of four children. His sister, Lori Longfritz, who was 1½ years older, says her younger brother always lifted everyone’s spirits. “Of the four of us kids he was the clown of the family,” she recalls. “He had a way about him that was easygoing. He liked to play jokes, he liked to mess around.”

When they were around 11 or 12, their father caught Lori, her sister and John jumping on the beds. As punishment he made them jump up and down on the living room floor until their mother got back from the grocery store. His sisters were upset, but John, in an if-life-hands-you-lemons-make-lemonade moment, decided to roll with the punishment and had a ball jumping up and down on the living-room floor. “My sister and I were about ready to cry, and John was just jumping away laughing.”

In addition to his sense of humor, John was genuinely kind. “The old saying, ‘Do the right thing, even when no one’s watching,’ that’s how he was,” Longfritz says.

A child in the neighborhood was paralyzed below the waist and had intellectual disabilities. Many an afternoon as other kids played outside, John, at about the age of 12, would be inside with the neighbor helping her color. “I didn’t do that very often. John would just do it because he wanted to,” Longfritz says. “Nobody’s perfect, he had his scars, too, but all in all he was a really good person, always trying to do the right thing with humor and kindness.”

John A. Chapman AFC-3.jpg

Tech Sgt. John Chapman. Courtesy of the Air Force.

‘This Is Not How We Work, Reducing Risk to Zero’

Every mission has its risks. On March 3, 2002, when Mako 30, a SEAL Team 6 reconnaissance unit, was ordered behind enemy lines, the team’s leader, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski, felt the risks were manageable. He told MacPherson he figured the likelihood they would run into the enemy was “100 percent,” but that “they would be in onesies or twosies or a small patrol of four guys.” Besides, “this is not how we work, reducing risk to zero — otherwise send accountants up there.”

Mako 30 had been ordered to establish an observation post on a 10,469-foot monster of a mountain called Takur Ghar. The peak overlooked the Shah-i-Kot Valley in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. Hundreds of well-trained al-Qaida soldiers had holed up in the valley, some after escaping the U.S. bombardment of Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden had famously eluded capture less than three months earlier.

Read our sidebar on Operation Anaconda
& our Battle of Takur Ghar Timeline  

 

Days before, the U.S. had launched its largest ground offensive of the war, called Operation Anaconda. It was designed to crush remaining al-Qaida forces and capture high-value al-Qaida targets, possibly even bin Laden, who some believed could be hiding in the valley. But the offensive was not going well. There had been a fatal friendly-fire incident, and the Afghan militia the U.S. had been relying on for help had backed out. U.S. forces had encountered an enemy that was greater in number, better trained and more committed than expected.

Takur Ghar map

Detail map: U.S. Army. Inset Map: Peter Hermes Furian/iStock/Thinkstock 

Compounding these problems, the effectiveness of U.S. troops was hampered by a convoluted chain of command, and a lack of cohesion between soldiers from different branches of the armed forces. “Distracted by the looming possibility of war with Iraq and obsessed with not deploying so many forces to Afghanistan that the Americans might resemble an occupation force like the Soviet occupation force 15, 20 years earlier, the Pentagon chose not to deploy a cohesive division-size force into Afghanistan to conduct this operation,” says Sean Naylor, author of Not A Good Day to Die, a detailed history of the operation. Naylor, who witnessed parts of Operation Anaconda firsthand while embedded with the the 101st Airborne Division troops who fought in the battle, adds, “You didn’t have a force where everyone was used to working with each other, and secondly you had a very small force particularly when it came to firepower.”

From the peak of Takur Ghar, Mako 30 would be tasked with directing precision airstrikes in the valley below in the hopes of turning the tide of the engagement and making up for this lack of firepower.

Mako 30’s combat controller was John “Chappy” Chapman from the Air Force. A combat controller’s “weapon was his radio, which he worked like an orchestra conductor with his musicians to call in weapons-laden aircraft from the sky,” writes MacPherson. Chappy always made sure the pilots he worked with played the right notes. “An F-15 pilot would tell Chapman what he was carrying, and Chapman used words to draw pictures for pilots of where to hit.”

Chapman joined Slabinski’s team in October 2001. At 36, he was the oldest team member and expressed doubts to Slabinski about his ability to keep up. The team leader told him he had nothing to worry about.

The plan was for the team to be transported by helicopter to a point more than 4,200 feet below Takur Ghar’s peak. They would then move to the peak on foot. The team initially boarded a helicopter at Gardez, a small air base that served as the launching point for the operation. At about 11:41 p.m. on March 3, they were a mere nine minutes away from their insertion point when the mission was delayed because of a separate bombing run in the area.

They returned to Gardez, where the chopper began having engine problems. By the time a replacement helicopter was ready, Slabinski was told the earliest his team could be transported to the landing zone was 2:30 a.m., too late for the team to be able to reach the peak by daylight. Slabinski recommended to his commander that the mission be delayed until the next night. Instead, the team’s superiors began to formulate an alternate, riskier plan. Instead of climbing up the mountain on foot under cover of night, Slabinski, Chapman and their teammates would be inserted directly to the mountaintop. This violated a basic rule of reconnaissance, that a team should never infiltrate by helicopter at their observation post, because doing so lets the enemy know their location.

In Not a Good Day to Die, Naylor writes that inserting the SEALs onto Takur Ghar was something many involved in the operation felt could wait until the next night. However, there were some who were eager to get the SEALs into the fight as quickly as possible. Had Mako 30’s SEAL commanders been in communication with Delta Force commanders, who had a better understanding of the Shah-i-Kot Valley, and believed it was likely that Takur Ghar was occupied by the enemy, the mission would almost certainly have been called off. Instead, Mako 30 was ordered to the top of Takur Ghar.

‘Fearless’

At Windsor Locks High School, Chapman excelled as an athlete, playing on the soccer team and emerging as a star diver. While diving, he showed the boldness that would later serve him as a special operations soldier. Phil Devlin, a fellow Windsor Locks native and local military historian, saw Chapman dive years ago while Devlin was refereeing a state diving competition. “Some people say to be a diver, you have to be a little crazy, but I say you have to be a bit fearless,” says Devlin, himself a former diver and diving coach. Chapman was certainly fearless.

This fearlessness, matched with an ability to endure pain, would have Chapman practicing at the pool until his skin turned red like a lobster from the impact with the water at odd angles. “When you miss a dive you’re gonna pay for it. He would keep at it until he got it right. That’s pretty much what he did with everything,” Longfritz says.

After high school, Chapman attended the University of Connecticut for a year, then dropped out. “It wasn’t for him; he didn’t like it,” says his sister.

John Chapman holding child in Afghanistan.jpg

John Chapman holds a child in Afghanistan in this undated photo courtesy of the Air Force. 

Growing up in Windsor Locks, Chapman didn’t have to look far to be inspired by aircraft. The town is home to Bradley International Airport and its sister Air Force base, and the sound of planes taking off and landing is part of the soundtrack to life there. Chapman also had a lifelong fascination with exploration and science fiction. “He loved Star Trek, he loved Battlestar Galactica, he loved Star Wars,” Longfritz says. Eventually, he succumbed to the siren song of the aircraft flying over his hometown and enlisted in the Air Force.

Longfritz says her parents supported her brother’s decision, but “my mom was just like, ‘Promise me you won’t get into anything that’s dangerous.’ And he didn’t, at first.”

‘Get Us Out of Here!’

Mako 30 boarded a helicopter and headed toward Takur Ghar a little before 3 a.m. on March 4.

There were reports that the peak was occupied by the enemy, but just before the chopper approached, an AC-130 gunship scanned the landing zone for potential enemy combatants and said it was secure.

As the black chopper began its final approach to the mountain, the crew saw footprints in the snow. Slabinski ordered the craft to land.

Almost at that precise moment, 100 miles north in Bagram, a radio telephone officer (RTO) entered Mako 30’s landing zone coordinates into his computer. The landing spot flashed on a digital map in front of a Delta Force officer whose name remains classified. He stared in disbelief. “There’s no way; redo it,” he ordered the RTO, not believing a reconnaissance team would risk landing on the peak.

Takur Ghar Peak .jpg

The top of Takur Ghar after the battle in March 2002.  Department of Defense

As the RTO entered the coordinates, the helicopter settled into the three feet of snow atop Takur Ghar, the aircraft’s rotors churning furiously in the thin mountain air. Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack, the pilot of the Chinook, cried over the intercom, “Team leader, you’ve got a DShK [Soviet heavy machine gun], unmanned, 1 o’clock.” “Yeah, roger,” Slabinski said. As the ramp started to fall, another crewman reported a donkey tied to a tree at 3 o’clock. The landing site the AC-130 had declared clear minutes earlier was teeming with signs of life.

Back at Bagram, with the landing coordinates confirmed, the frantic Delta officer grabbed the hand mike to call the team off. He was too late.

From the left side of the helicopter, crew members saw a bright orange flash of light. A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the electrical compartment of the helicopter, wounding a crew member, knocking out several electrical components, and jamming the ramp in the down position. Bullets sprayed the aircraft, poking holes in the hydraulics. A fire started filling the cabin with acrid smoke. “Get us out of here!” Slabinski called over the intercom, aborting the landing. A chopper crew member near the back called for Mack to get the craft airborne. “Pick it up! Pick it up! Go! Go! Go!”

Less than 45 seconds after landing, Mack began bringing the helicopter off the ground. As the chopper lifted, possibly misinterpreting the crew member’s “Go! Go! Go!” shout as a command to get off the chopper, or possibly slipping as the chopper lurched, Petty Officer First Class Roberts, who was closest to the exit ramp and was not wearing a safety harness, moved toward the open ramp. A crew member tried to stop him but was restrained by his safety harness. The ramp was slick from leaking oil and hydraulic fluid. As Roberts got on it he slid, and was unable to get back into the chopper. Another crew member, the left rear gunner, tackled Roberts, hoping to keep him in the craft. He grabbed the 6-foot-2 SEAL by the ankle, but as the helicopter lurched, he lost his hold and both men slid off the ramp. The crew member’s safety harness jerked taut after three feet, but an untethered Roberts fell about 10 feet onto the snowy ground.

The helicopter launched over the edge of the peak and off the mountaintop with the crew member dangling beneath it. Mack was desperately trying to fly the failing helicopter and was initially unaware of what happened in the back of the craft. When the crew member was pulled back inside and Mack learned Roberts had fallen out, he tried to take the chopper back to the mountain for a rescue attempt.

But the helicopter’s hydraulic system was failing, and without it the chopper couldn’t fly. To keep the craft in the air, a crew member had to keep refilling the leaking hydraulic system, and Mack couldn’t get enough control to turn back to Takur Ghar. As all thoughts of a rescue attempt vanished, Mack realized the chopper could not stay airborne for long.

One in 10

Chapman enlisted in the Air Force as a computer technician, but was not enthralled with the sedentary work the job entailed. He became fascinated by the promise of becoming a combat controller and transferred to Air Force’s Special Operations Command. Though lesser known than their Special Ops counterparts in the Navy and Army such as the SEALs or Delta Force, the Air Force’s special operations are equally as elite. Combat controller training is nearly two years long and among the most rigorous in the U.S. Armed Forces. Only about one in 10 who start the program graduate.

Chief Master Sgt. Michael West, a special tactics combat controller, says via email that he and Chapman signed on for “Air Force Combat Control about the same time and entered an 18-month training pipeline of some of the hardest military schools the Department of Defense had to offer. We endured months of physical fitness, military SCUBA school, Army Static-line parachute training, USAF Air Traffic Control School, Army Military freefall school, SERE training and finally Combat Control School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. When we finally graduated the long pipeline, we were not just friends, we were brothers.”

Two years after that training, West and Chapman were reunited at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. “We traveled all over Southeast Asia as combat controllers, working in very isolated countries jumping, shooting, backpacking while training with our partner forces. When we were home, we barbecued on the weekends, talking about beer and cars. John and I had the same interests and a lot of our beer conversations migrated to cars and which ones were faster, meaner and more likely to wrap around a tree on a sharp turn.”

Chapman took to the new work and met his future wife, Valerie, in the early 1990s while visiting friends in Pennsylvania. The couple lived in North Carolina near Pope Air Force Base and had two children, Brianna and Madison.“John was a great dad. He would come home from a long trip and immediately have on his father hat; feeding, bathing, reading and getting his girls ready for bed. They were his life, and he was very proud of them,” West says.

Chapman could never talk to his family about the classified missions he went on. “We didn’t really know exactly what he did until after he died. He never talked about it, he never blew his own horn,” Longfritz says. “He would say ‘I have to go somewhere,’ he wouldn’t say where, and I would ask him, ‘where are you going?’ He would just say ‘yeah.’”

One day Longfritz hoped to find out the truth about those secret trips. “He would say when we’re old and gray, we can sit around and then I’ll tell you some stories.”

Leave No One Behind

Fighting for control of the craft, Mack attempted an emergency landing. Finding a relatively flat area off the mountain, he started bringing the craft down. When the chopper was about 10 feet above the ground, he felt the controls lock up as the craft ran out of hydraulic fluid. It fell to earth with a thump, lurching precariously but not falling over. It was 2:58 a.m.

Chapman set up his radio beside the fallen Chinook and began establishing communications. Slabinski and the rest of the SEAL team took up defensive position around the fallen craft.

Leaving no one behind is a concept as old as warfare and deeply ingrained in the psyche of American soldiers. The peak of Takur Ghar had proven to be a hornet’s nest occupied by a well-fortified, well-armed and well-trained enemy. Despite the clear dangers, Chapman and the rest of the team were determined to return quickly to Takur Ghar in an attempt to save Roberts any way they could.

“Any Grim, any Nail [gunships in the area], this is Mako 30,” Chapman called out over the radio. “We’ve just had a crash-landing and need some perimeter security.”

Chapman coordinated air cover for the downed aircraft and directed a nearby AC-130H with the call sign Grim 32 to look for Roberts, informing them to look for an infrared strobe that Roberts was equipped with that he may have activated. A rescue helicopter was dispatched to pick up the Mako 30 team.

At some point during this ordeal, Chapman found time to comfort the crew of the helicopter about the hard landing. “Aw, don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve felt harder PLFs [parachute landing falls].”

Initially, Slabinski thought the chopper had crashed at the base of Takur Ghar and hoped to have his team return to the top on foot. Chapman relayed these intentions to Bagram at 3:06 a.m. Slabinski soon realized they had landed too far away to get back to the peak and abandoned the plan, but the transmission gave the Grim 32 crew the false impression that there were more friendly troops on the peak of Takur Ghar than just Roberts. Once again, a failure of communication and general confusion would have tragic results.

As Grim 32 flew toward the top of Takur Ghar, the crew saw Roberts’ infrared light blinking like a lighthouse in the sky. They could see a person holding the strobe and several individuals around him, but after about 30 seconds the strobe went dark for good.

Knowing Roberts could be alive and that his team couldn’t get back to the peak on foot, Slabinski wanted the rescue helicopter to immediately head back to Takur Ghar. However, with the seven-man crew of the downed Chinook now on board, the second chopper would be too heavy to reach the high-altitude peak. Ultimately, Mako 30 had to return to Gardez to drop off the crew of the downed chopper — a move that cost the team more than 35 minutes and any chance of saving Roberts.

As the rescue chopper took Mako 30 back to Takur Ghar, Slabinski settled on a makeshift plan. Grim 32 would fire into the center of the group on the mountain, right before the helicopter carrying the SEALs landed. If someone were to break away from the group, it would most likely be Roberts. The gunship was to protect that person by firing on the rest of the group.

Once again, an unclear command structure wreaked havoc on the operation. Grim 32 was receiving counter-orders from commanders far from the battlefield who lacked full situational awareness. Because these orders were coming on a separate channel not monitored by officers on the ground, they couldn’t counter them.

With the SEALs about five minutes from the mountain, Grim 32 was not granted permission to fire unless they could positively identify Roberts, which they couldn’t. For the second time that night, the SEALs had decided to drop down into what essentially was an ambush, with no cover fire from the air. This time they did it knowingly. “The decision to go back was just an extraordinarily brave one,” Naylor says. “They knew they were risking their lives and flying into a buzz saw, and they did that anyway because they were determined to leave no man behind.”

After Roberts had fallen out of the chopper, he activated his infrared strobe and fought on alone. Weakened by a wound to his upper thigh, Roberts was captured. At 4:27 a.m. one of his captors shot him in the head, killing him.

En route to Takur Ghar, Chapman and his teammates didn’t know Roberts was dead. They only knew he had survived the fall from the chopper and there was a chance he could be rescued. As Slabinski later said, returning to the top of Takur Ghar by helicopter “was not the smartest idea, but it was all we had.”

At about 4:55 a.m., one minute before the aircraft landed on the peak, a radio message ordered the SEALs not to land. The message either never reached the team or was disregarded. The DShK began shooting at the craft before it touched down. Under heavy fire, Slabinski and his team ran off the ramp as soon as the chopper landed. Slabinski fell in the deep snow and Chapman stepped over him, charging toward enemy positions…

‘Extraordinary Courage and Valor’

After Chapman and Slabinski cleared the first bunker and Chapman was hit, Slabinski made the decision to break contact with the enemy.

In 2003, Chapman was posthumously awarded an Air Force Cross, the second-highest military award to the Medal of Honor, for his initial charge atop the mountain. The citation for that award noted that Slabinski, who received a Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in May 2018 for his actions in the firefight, had credited Chapman “unequivocally with saving the lives of the entire rescue team.”

Slabinski could not be reached for comment for this story. But in an interview for a New York Times story in August, co-written by Naylor and Christopher Drew, Slabinski said it was within Chapman’s character to do something like this, but expressed skepticism about the new analysis of what happened. As reported in The New York Times, the video shows the man in the bunker shooting with muzzle flashes, while Chapman would have had a suppressor, according to Slabinski, who also questioned the full-automatic firing shown in the video, rather than the single shots Chapman was trained to take.

It is against Department of Defense policy to comment on any Medal of Honor case until the award is officially announced, an Air Force spokesperson said when contacted for this story. Sen. Blumenthal wrote a letter in September that was signed by Connecticut’s entire congressional delegation in support of Chapman being awarded the medal. “There is apparent contention about some of the circumstances about John Chapman’s death and perhaps the last hours of his life,” Blumenthal says. “But there is absolutely no question that he sacrificed his life with extraordinary courage and valor and saved members of his team that otherwise would have perished in that firefight.”

As of this writing in early December, Blumenthal expected a decision to be made before President Obama’s term in office ends Jan. 20. A report from April 2018, citing unnamed sources, says Chapman will be awarded the posthumous Medal of Honor later this year.

Chapman was considered for the Medal of Honor when Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James ordered the review of the seven Air Force Crosses awarded since Sept. 11, 2001, for possible upgrades.

As part of the review, the Air Force used imagery-enhancement technology to analyze the footage taken by a Predator drone circling 6,500 feet above the mountain and additional footage taken by a nearby AC-130 gunship. According to the The New York Times, “the imagery technology, still being refined in an Air Force lab, enabled the service to assign each person in the blurry videos a ‘pixel signature’ based on his size, his clothing and the weapons he carried, people who have been briefed said. By identifying Sergeant Chapman shortly after he stepped out of the helicopter with the SEALs, the briefing slides say, its imagery analysts could follow him around the mountaintop, picking him up even when trees or other obstacles partly obscured him.”

The Times adds, the Air Force’s case includes a new analysis of “Sergeant Chapman’s autopsy that found that bruising on his forehead could have happened only if he had been alive, making the hypothesis that he had been briefly knocked out more plausible. His body, which was recovered later that day, had nine bullet wounds, five below his waist and four above. The sequence of the injuries is not known. But the two fatal rounds entered at what would have been an impossible angle had he been killed where the SEALs said he had fallen.”

If Chapman is awarded the Medal of Honor, it will be the first of more than 3,500 Medals of Honor given since the Civil War not based on eyewitness accounts. It will also be the first awarded to a member of the Air Force in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

‘...Even When No One’s Watching’

According to the Times, the Air Force maintains that after regaining consciousness, Chapman fought enemy forces on three sides. He crawled into the bunker about 13 minutes after the SEALs’ departure, at about 5:25 a.m. From that bunker he fought on, not just for survival but for his fellow soldiers.

At 6 a.m., after an RPG was fired at the bunker, Chapman fatally shot a fighter rushing toward him.

A few minutes later, another militant crawled to the bunker’s edge, where, at 6:11, the airman killed him in hand-to-hand combat.

After retreating from the mountaintop, Slabinski and the other survivors had called for backup from Army Rangers. In what was perhaps the biggest blunder of the battle, somehow the Rangers, due to lack of communication between various branches of the military, were given the same coordinates on Takur Ghar where twice the SEALs had attempted to land. When officers realized the mistake, a message telling the Rangers not to land there was never received due to malfunctioning radios.

As the Ranger chopper approached the mountain in the early morning light, entering what was essentially a deathtrap, Chapman stood up for a better angle to provide covering fire. He faced machine-gun fire as he tried to help the Rangers, whose helicopter was struck by an RPG. At that instant, with a potential rescue near at hand, two machine-gun bullets struck the right side of Chapman’s chest, killing him instantly.

Takur Ghar Chopper .jpg

The Ranger chopper that was shot down while landing on the peak of Takur Ghar.  Department of Defense

It was a final noble act to help the Rangers, who were there to save him and his team but were themselves caught in a bloodbath. Like the SEALs, the Rangers were under fire before they landed, and their chopper crash-landed on the peak. Despite what appears to be Chapman’s effort to cover their approach, five soldiers who landed with the helicopter would die, bringing the total fatality count for U.S. forces in the battle to seven, including Chapman and Roberts.

Blumenthal says Chapman’s story has moved him deeply. “I sometimes think of him alone and embattled on that mountaintop in the final hours of his life, after saving so many of his teammates and facing the end but continuing to battle the enemy. And it strikes me in the highest traditions of the American military, deserving of this highest recognition.”

A Story to Share

The story of the Battle of Takur Ghar, or Roberts Ridge, is remembered far beyond Windsor Locks. There are three nonfiction books dealing with the conflict, the aforementioned Roberts Ridge and Not A Good Day to Die, as well as Two Wars: One Hero’s Fight on Two Fronts — Abroad and Within by Nate Self, the Ranger captain who commanded the troops on the Ranger helicopter. In addition, the story of the 2010 video game Medal of Honor is based on the battle.

But for Chapman’s friends and family, the memory is more personal. In the Windsor Locks Town Hall there is a small memorial for Chapman enclosed in glass with a flag and his picture. There is another memorial at Windsor Locks High School and a road in town named for him.

His daughters, Madison and Brianna, were 5 and 3, respectively, when he died and are now 20 and 18 and live in Florida. They remind their aunt of their father. “Brianna, the younger one, looks like him. Madison has the confidence in herself that John had,” she says. “They were so young when he died. It’s kind of hard to think they would have traits that he had, but I can definitely see John in both of them.”

Once while visiting his parents as an adult, Chapman traveled with his father to a nearby store. The two became separated and Chapman’s dad couldn’t find him for 20 or 30 minutes. John was outside talking with a war veteran. “He would go out of his way to talk to older people, especially older guys who had been in the military. He said they had so much to tell and such great stories to share,” Longfritz says.

Now, it’s Chapman’s story that deserves to be told.