Contrary to what the military thought for years, John Chapman saw the sun rise March 4, 2002.
The Air Force sergeant found himself shot and stranded atop a snow-covered Afghan mountain surrounded by al-Qaida soldiers, according to interviews with service members and military accounts. Chapman was on the mountain to rescue a teammate who’d fallen out of a helicopter. Thinking him dead and under fire, his unit retreated, leaving Chapman on the mountain.
But merely wounded and unconscious, the 36-year-old got out of the bunker where he’d been fighting alone for an hour, and laid down suppressing fire to distract the enemy fighters from firing rocket-propelled grenades at an incoming helicopter carrying a group of Army Rangers.
Enemy machine gun fire shot down Chapman, who now has posthumously received the military’s highest honor.
But the Pentagon knew little of that until past cases of valor were reviewed to see if they were appropriately handled. Deborah James, Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, recommended the assessment and President Donald Trump approved.
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The review stemmed from a worry that the military was grading itself too harshly, which is a concern many service members have had since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A result of the review was to elevate Chapman’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. He is the first airman to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
His widow Valerie Nessel and their two daughters attended the ceremony Wednesday afternoon, which would have been the couple’s 26th wedding anniversary, the president said.
“John was determined to protect those in need,” Trump said, adding a story about a time in kindergarten that the Connecticut native saved someone from being bullied.
He detailed how Chapman killed two al-Qaida soldiers in one bunker before taking on an entrenched machine gunner, and being shot, only to fight another hour.
The president said 20 service members were saved by Chapman’s actions.
“Our nation is rich with blessings, but our greatest blessings of all are our patriots like John,” Trump told the crowd.
An integral part of the acts of valor review in Chapman’s case, was viewing drone footage that showed the airman unconscious but alive, when his fellow service members thought he was dead. The footage showed him waking up, continuing to fight and thwart the grenade attacks on the Ranger helicopter.
The New York Times first reported this finding in August 2016. The newspaper also reported that many military officials felt the mission was poorly executed.
Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, a retired Delta Force commander who managed the operation, told the newspaper that those who weren’t there shouldn’t second-guess.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, I’d never leave someone behind,’” he told The Times. “It’s a lot harder when you’re getting your ass shot off.”
Col. David Dodd, who now lives in Kennesaw, ran the communications operations in that area at the time, which included drone operations.
Dodd told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that Chapman was left behind “in the confusion of battle.”
He is glad the drone footage has been uncovered.
“Without video of this, it probably would have never come to light — the incredible act of heroism he displayed on the battlefield,” Dodd said.
Chapman was on that mountain because Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts fell out of a helicopter during an operation. Chapman and others went back to get him.
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski, who led the team through thigh-deep snow to rescue Roberts, received the Medal of Honor in May.
Including Roberts and Chapman, seven people died on the 10,000-foot-tall Takur Ghar mountain that day.
The engagement — named “Battle of Roberts Ridge” after Neil Roberts — drew much attention as an early, bloody engagement soon after 9/11. It has been studied at U.S. warfare schools, spawned books and was depicted in a video game named “Medal of Honor.”
Dodd found out about the upgrade to Medal of Honor for Chapman through media reports.
“My reaction is it’s about time. It’s a little too late, but these things take time to sort out. I’m just glad his family is going to get this recognition,” he said.
Reporting from The Washington Post was included in this story.