The Washington Post
of a Medal of Honor to a retired Navy SEAL did not quell frustrations about a related case.
Two Chinook helicopters carrying elite U.S. troops roared 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 Takur Ghar mountain. The Navy SEAL is credited with braving withering fire from Taliban and alQaeda 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,” Trump said in 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.
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 the 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.
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. More recently, he has been dogged by media reports suggesting he mishandled enemy remains.
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 targets in the middle of hairraising special operations.
Deborah Lee James, who served as Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, said 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.
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. 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 and at least one member of Chapman’s family consider the actions an attempt to play down what happened on Takur Ghar. They say Slabinski did his best and deserves the Medal of Honor but are frustrated at what they see as attempts to obscure the truth that the SEAL was faced with the difficult call to withdraw from the mountain without Chapman.
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,” she said. “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 Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Robert Manning III, declined to comment on Chapman’s nomination but said in a statement that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “fairly and thoroughly evaluated the Medal of Honor nomination” for Slabinski against “longstanding Medal of Honor criteria.”