It was March of 2002, just six months after 9-11. U.S. forces in Afghanistan were trying to find Osama bin Laden, and fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban forces supporting them. Among the troops was Technical Sergeant John Chapman.
There’s a memorial to him now in his hometown of Windsor Locks. In March of 2002, he’d been in the Air Force for 17 years. Chapman was a Combat Controller. His job was to get close to the enemy and organize air strikes.
He was part of Operation Anaconda, working with a SEAL Team to take out Taliban fighters cornered in a valley in eastern Afghanistan. In the middle of the night, they choppered to the top of a mountain overlooking the valley the plan was to direct air strikes from there.
When Chapman and those Navy SEALs got on their helicopter, they were told there were about 200 lightly armed Taliban fighters in that valley, and none of them on top of that mountain. Then they got there, and they found it was more like a thousand Taliban fighters with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and some of them were waiting on top of that mountain.
An RPG hit the chopper as it was landing. One of the SEALs fell out, hit the ground, and was still alive. The chopper crash-landed a couple miles away, but the team called for a new one to take them back for a rescue mission.
An AC-130 gunship and a drone were both overhead as the new chopper landed. The Air Force released video earlier this morning showing Chapman charging up a steep slope, right at two enemy bunkers.
The Air Force says Chapman killed the men in that bunker, climbed inside, and then left the safety of the first bunker in order to start shooting at the second bunker. That is when Chapman was shot the first time.
He was on the ground, not moving, so the rest of the team retreated with their wounded, leaving Chapman for dead. They also called in a quick reaction force, or QRF, to help them take the mountaintop, but then the video shows movement back at the bunker.
“When you go back and look at the culmination of all the sensor footage that we didn’t have access to on board the aircraft or in the immediate aftermath, it became absolutely clear that it was tech sgt. John Chapman,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rob Harrison, who was part of the AC-130 gunship crew circling overhead.
Chapman came to and kept fighting for another hour. Then that QRF chopper arrived. Chapman left the safety of the bunker again to shoot at the enemy that was shooting at the chopper. The men on board say Chapman made all the difference.
“By him being there and laying suppressive fire in that position, as we were flaring to land, absolutely reduced the amount of rounds the enemy was able to put into the side of the helicopter,” said Maj. Gabe Brown, the Combat Controller on that QRF chopper.
Out in the open, however, Chapman was shot again. This time, he did not survive.
“He sacrificed himself for the QRF that came in,” Harrison said.
“Well, that’s John,” said Dave Wrabel, a childhood friend from Windsor Locks. “Find a way to do what he needed to do.”
For the folks who knew Chapman best back in Windsor Locks, his bravery and sacrifice were no surprise.
“Finding out afterwards what he went through is, you know, gut wrenching, but he was a fighter, right to the end,” Wrabel said.
Back when they gathered donations for Chapman’s memorial, they did not know all the details. With the release of all the video, an even greater honor now awaits Chapman. Some of those friends will be in Washington Wednesday as Chapman is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
“He would certainly sacrifice himself and put people in front of him, and as a result, yes, I’m certainly not surprised in terms of what he did on that mountain,” said childhood friend Michael Toce.
Chapman will be the first Airman since Vietnam to get the highest possible military honor.