Wednesday is going to be an emotional day for a group of longtime friends from Windsor Locks. They are heading to the White House, where President Donald Trump will posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Sgt. John Chapman.
“For John to put himself in that type of situation, for him it was all about family and team, so it never surprised me,” said Dave Wrabel.
“John was fearless. He absolutely would try anything,” said Tom Allen, who coached Chapman in diving, a sport that punishes mistakes. “John would get up and just do it again. He was fearless. That’s the best way to put it.”
Many of these friends knew Chapman since grade school, and they kept in touch after Chapman joined the Air Force in 1985.
“Probably every other month we were getting letters, exchanging letters, as John was going from base to base to base,” Wrabel said.
Then, Chapman told his old coach he wanted to be a combat air controller.
“I said, ‘You know John,’ because I was in the Air Force, ‘Your life expectancy is about a minute on the ground,'” Allen said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, but that’s what I want to do.'”
“It was a lot of computer related work in the Air Force, then he decided he wanted to do something greater,” Wrabel said. “He went into the training for special forces.”
The work involved coordinating air strikes and parachute drops. The conversations with friends got more vague.
“He would just say ‘traveling.’ What are you going there for? ‘Training.’ What kind of training? ‘Military training,'” said friend Brian Topor.
Ken Loughran still has a framed photo of Chapman holding a small child in Afghanistan. He says it shows the father in John.
“The loving side of him, yeah,” Loughran said. “He was just an amazing person, and he had two little girls himself.”
He thinks that was the last picture taken of Chapman. A few months after September 11, 2001, his helicopter was attacked in the mountains of Afghanistan. One of the Navy SEALs on board fell out. In the subsequent rescue mission, Chapman was shot and killed.
That’s all his friends and family knew when they raised money for a memorial next to the high school soccer field where they and Chapman played.
“You know, back in 2002 when John passed, certainly I thought we were going to learn more about what happened on that mountain,” said friend Michael Toce.
The Air Force spent years studying night vision video from a plane and a drone. It shows John charging an enemy bunker. The Air Force created a computer animation showing John killing the men in that bunker, climbing inside, and then shooting at a second bunker. That’s when he is shot and left for dead as the rest of the team retreated.
Then, however, the video shows John coming to, and fighting all alone for the next hour.
“It’s not how we initially thought he spent the last moments of his life,” said friend Joanne Kryszpin. “To know that there were more than just a few moments and there was some time he was there by himself fighting, but that’s John.”
“I knew he wouldn’t give up,” Allen said. “I mean, he knew the stakes. They weren’t going to take him alive. That’s just the way it is.”
They did not take him alive. Chapman left the bunker once again to protect an incoming rescue helicopter, and was cut down by machine gun fire.
“Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it again,” said friend Edward Tersavich. “Very proud of him and proud to have been called a friend.”
“Having been that close with John and knowing how one of your good friend’s last moments of life were, it was really kind of sad,” said Topor.
“Very proud of him and his family,” Louhran said. “The sacrifice was unbelievable.”
So unbelievable that President Trump will posthumously award him the Medal of Honor this week.
“I think there’s a lot of pride in the town, certainly his classmates and friends and family,” said Topor.
There is a lot of pride in the Air Force, as well. No Airman has received the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. Friends say a White House ceremony, though, was not Chapman’s style.
“He would not want any type of recognition like that,” said Wrabel. “He would put it on, ‘That’s my team, taking care of my family.’ Just doing his job.”
Most of these childhood friends will be in Washington, D.C. Wednesday afternoon as John Chapman receives the nation’s highest military award.