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Trump awards posthumous Medal of Honor to son of Colo. woman

Author: Erin Prater - August 22, 2018 - Updated: September 10, 2018

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Valerie Nessel, second from left, accompanied by family members including Terry Chapman, far right, accepts the Medal of Honor from President Donald Trump, center, for her husband Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, posthumously for conspicuous gallantry, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Aug. 22. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Wednesday to the son of a Colorado Springs woman, marking the first time a special tactics airman has received the nation’s most prestigious honor for bravery on the battlefield.

Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman was killed in action in Afghanistan 16 years ago in what Trump on Wednesday called “one of the most harrowing engagements” of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The medal was presented to Chapman’s widow, Valerie Nessel. The fallen airman’s mother, Terry Chapman, and his two daughters were also present at the White House ceremony and joined Nessel and Trump after the presentation.

“He really fought, we have proof of that,” Trump told attendees, including members of the Chapman family, troops who battled alongside him in the battle of Takur Ghar, military brass and members of Congress.

“Good genes, you have good genes,” Trump remarked to his family while recounting the battle narrative.

Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, 36, died March 4, 2002, during a firefight with al-Qaida fighters on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo)

John Chapman, 36, died March 4, 2002, during a firefight with al-Qaida fighters on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan.

The combat controller, attached to SEAL Team 6, was participating in Operation Anaconda, which aimed to clear eastern Afghanistan’s Shahi Kot valley of al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents. He had volunteered to join a team attempting to rescue Navy SEAL Neal Roberts, who had fallen from the helicopter the two were riding on when it was hit by enemy fire earlier that morning.

After the heavily damaged helicopter made an emergency landing, John Chapman “began coordinating close air support and a rescue effort to retrieve Roberts” from atop the mountain, according to an Air Force account of the battle.

Another helicopter arrived and transported the team back to the mountaintop, which would later become known as Roberts Ridge.

“At over 10,000 feet, they fought the enemy at the highest altitude of any battle in the history of the American military,” Trump said, adding that John Chapman was the first to charge up the mountain toward the enemy.

Upon landing, John Chapman killed two enemy fighters and was advancing toward a machine gun nest when his team came under fire from three sides, pinning them down. He then “broke cover to rush another enemy position,” allowing his team members to escape, according to the account. “At close range and with little cover, he exchanged fire with the enemy until dying from multiple wounds.”

Thanks to Chapman’s bravery that day, more than 20 American troops were saved, Trump said at Wednesday’s ceremony.

For his actions, John Chapman was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross — the service’s second highest award — in 2003.

According to a July announcement from the White House, he fought “relentlessly” until his death. But just when his death occurred that day has been the subject of debate.

Rumors had swirled about a possible Medal of Honor for the fallen airman since a 2016 New York Times article stated that new technology used to examine aircraft video from the battle had led Air Force officials to conclude that John Chapman was still alive when his team retreated.

According to the officials, “Sergeant Chapman not only was alive, but also fought on alone for more than an hour,” the newspaper reported.

“I’m trying to direct what everybody’s got going on, trying to see what’s going on with John (Chapman); I’m already 95 percent certain in my mind that he’s been killed,” Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt Slabinski, who made the decision to retreat without the wounded airman, recounted in a 2016 interview with the Times. “That’s why I was like, ‘O.K., we’ve got to move.’”

According to annotated drone footage of the battle released by the Air Force in August, John Chapman was “wounded and temporarily incapacitated” at 4:31 a.m.

At 5:41 a.m. he “regains his faculties and continues to fight relentlessly” before being killed two minutes later.

According to his autopsy, John Chapman was shot in the heel, calf, back, chest, liver and thigh, and sustained “multiple abrasions on his face and a broken nose,” before two fatal shots to his aorta killed him almost instantly, the Air Force Times reported this week.

“The doctor who conducted his autopsy at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan found that he could have been knocked unconscious by one or more of those earlier injuries — perhaps he was hit in the face by a rifle butt that broke his nose, the special tactics officer said, or passed out after a gunshot wound — but he still would have been able to move around and fight once he woke up,” the paper reported.

Terry Chapman was informed in March that her son would be awarded the Medal of Honor but didn’t learn the date until late last month.

Meanwhile, Slabinski, who was present at Wednesday’s ceremony, was awarded the Medal of Honor in May for “conspicuous gallantry” for his effort to save Roberts and other troops wounded in the day’s battle.

Terry Chapman “was beginning to think it was not ever going to happen” for her son, she told Colorado Politics in July. “I’m glad that the story’s finally out.”

Were he alive today, John Chapman would likely react to Wednesday’s honor as most medal recipients do and shift focus away from himself, she said.

“He would be embarrassed by all the attention that’s going to be put toward him,” she said last month. “I think he would be like the other guys who say, ‘I’m just doing my job.’”

Trump touched on John Chapman’s humble, selfless nature during Wednesday’s ceremony, stating that “from a very young age, John was determined to protect those in need.”

“Give yourself before taking of someone else,” a young John Chapman was quoted as saying in his high school yearbook, Trump said Wednesday — “very far-sighted,” Trump remarked. “He lived by that motto every single day.”

John Chapman was one of two airmen killed during the 17-hour battle, the first airmen to die in combat since the Persian Gulf War. In all, four soldiers and a SEAL — Roberts — died during the battle at Takur Ghar, making it the deadliest day U.S. forces had seen thus far in Afghanistan.

All bodies, including Chapman’s, were recovered by the end of the day.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 3,502 Medals of Honor recipients, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Chapman’s is the 3,503rd.

Prior to Wednesday’s award, the last airman to receive the Medal of Honor was Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger. He was awarded the medal posthumously by then-President Barack Obama in 2010 for his actions in Laos on March 11, 1968, during the Vietnam War.

A movie and book about John Chapman’s story are reportedly in the works.

Erin Prater

Erin Prater

Erin Prater is Colorado Politics' digital editor. She is a multimedia journalist with 15 years of experience writing, editing and designing for newspapers, magazines, websites and publishing houses. Her previous positions include military reporter at The Gazette, general assignment reporter at The Huerfano County (Colo.) World, copy editor at David C. Cook publishing house and adjunct mass communication instructor at Pueblo Community College. Her bylines include The New York Times Upfront, The Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Military Spouse magazine and Omaha Magazine (Omaha, Neb.). Her syndicated bylines include The Denver Post, MSNBC.com, Military.com and wire services.