In the early days of the Global War on Terrorism, gallant men descended upon the mountains of Afghanistan to root out the Taliban from their strongholds. Prior to March of 2002, one would have to go back to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia to find gallantry worthy of the nation’s highest military honor. Prior to that, one would need to harken back to the Vietnam War where men made their stand in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet, in one battle on a cold mountaintop in Afghanistan two men would emerge with the Medal of Honor setting the standard for continued acts of gallantry throughout the GWOT experience. Remarkably, due to the controversy around the ill-fated engagement both men would have to wait some 16 years before receiving their due and right place in military history. Master Sergeant John Chapman and Master Chief Britt Slabinski both received the Medal of Honor for their actions at the Battle of Takur Ghar. One would stand before the President to receive his honor, while the other man never left the snowy mountain top that cold evening in March of 2002.
A Path to Military History
While their fates took demonstrably different paths, both men enlisted in the military during the height of the Cold War. At the time, it was the Soviets who were fighting it out on the mountain tops of Afghanistan where both men would soon earn their hallowed place in military history. John Chapman enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1983 and became a combat air controller. His ability to direct accurate and lethal fire upon the enemy made him a prized asset to the Special Operations Community. Subsequently, he found himself with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron as the United States entered the war in Afghanistan.
Britt Slabinski would join the United States Navy and become a radioman in 1989. Without delay, he headed straight for the elite Navy SEALs graduating with BUD/S class 164. As the United States poured into Afghanistan in 2002 it was typically the SEALs who were on the front lines. Such was the case in March of 2002 when the U.S. launched Operation Anaconda. Their mission was to root the Taliban out of their hardened positions in the Shahi-Kot Valley. While they expected resistance to be fierce, what greeted the SEALs at the point of insertion was withering enemy fire from an entrenched and numerically superior enemy. If any were to survive, inexplicable gallantry would be required from all.
No Man Left Behind
Attached to the elite SEAL unit, Master Sergeant Chapman was aboard a Chinook helicopter with Slabinski when it was rocked by enemy fire. A near direct hit from an RPG shook the helicopter causing one of the SEALs to fall out down to the snowy mountain top below. The oppressive enemy fire prevented them from landing immediately below to recover their fallen teammate. The team was able to eventually land a few miles away and the fight to recover their missing mate was on. Despite the fact that the mountain was crawling with enemy fighters, Chapman and Slabinski led the charge.
Coordinating fire with an AC-130 gunship, Chapmans role in providing cover for the moving team was instrumental to their survival. In between control efforts, Chapman even found time to dispatch the enemy with close combat as he moved between enemy strongholds. Meanwhile, Slabinski continued to lead the charge with complete disregard for his own safety. They pressed the charge up the ridge until the intense enemy fire became so overwhelming their position was no longer tenable. It was here that controversy would again arise as Slabinski faced what he would call the most difficult decision of his life.
An Honor Earned
As Chapman continued to press the fight, he became separated from the main group as they continued to take casualties. Slabinski found himself having to carry one wounded team member through the deep snow. As the storm of enemy machine gun fire and rockets continued to rain down on the men, it appeared that Chapman had suffered mortal injuries and was presumed dead during the middle of the fight. Slabinski now was faced with the brutal decision to withdraw lest all of his men suffer the same fate. With great skill and determination, Slabinski expertly and gallantly navigated his men off the ridge to a safe position. In total, the engagement would last 14 hours and would see the loss of multiple members of the special operations community that day.
Recommendations for the highest military honor to be bestowed upon Slabinski and Chapman were quickly put forward. However, controversy would hold them up for another 16 years. As advances in imagery and video technology were made, the Battle of Takur Ghar took on a new light. The enhanced imagery showed that Master Sergeant Chapman had indeed survived and continued to fight alone after the SEAL team withdrew. Chapman could be seen fighting from an enemy bunker and even engaging in hand to hand combat before he eventually succumb to his wounds.
The controversy surrounding this new information and the ill-fated nature of the engagement itself continued to mire any talks of awarding these men their due honor. However, in 2018 the Pentagon could not escape the fact that what these men displayed during the Battle of Takur Ghar was in keeping with the finest traditions and inexplicable gallantry of the Medal of Honor. One battle, two Medals of Honor and the eternal respect of all who witnessed these men fight was gifted upon them both. They now hold their hallowed and rightful place in military history as they forever bookmark for future generations, the Battle of Takur Ghar.