It is perhaps of little surprise that the newest branch of the U.S. military has amassed nearly the fewest of the nation’s highest military honor. Apart from the Coast Guard which has one Medal of Honor recipient, the Air Force’s 19 recipients pales in comparison with the other branches.
One does have to take into account that the Medal of Honor was frequently given out like candy during the American Civil War. It is only in the 20th century that the medal and its stature was heightened by a higher standard of gallantry required to receive it.
Remarkably, Master Sergeant John A. Chapman just received his award in 2018 despite committing the first Medal of Honor-worthy act of gallantry during the Global Wars on Terror in March of 2002. Hovering near the summit of Takur Ghar in the mountains of Afghanistan, Chapman’s helicopter came under intense enemy fire resulting in a Navy SEAL falling down to the snow-packed mountain below.
Landing some seven miles away, Chapman immediately began to coordinate air support and participated in a retrieval mission to reclaim the missing SEAL. In doing so, Chapman personally dispatched of multiple enemies before falling due to mortal wounds.
Believing Chapman dead, the rest of the special operators withdrew from the assault without him. Technology would later show that Chapman had survived and continued to fight alone while gifting violence to the enemy up until the very end.
For his actions that day, Master Sergeant John A. Chapman would be awarded the nation’s highest military honor some sixteen years after his gallant last stand.
From the Cold War to the War on Terror
John Chapman was born in 1965 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Eventually making his way to Connecticut, he graduated from Windsor Locks High School in 1983 and enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1985. At the time of his enlistment, it was Soviet Union that was foremost on his mind as the Cold War had not yet ended.
Interestingly, the Soviet Union was fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan during the 1980’s. No one knew that in less than twenty years it would be America’s turn to slug it out against a determined foe in that treacherous terrain.
Chapman received training in the combat control field where coordinating fire for ground operations would be his primary duty. This led to his entry into the special operations field, and he would finally end up with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron stationed out of Pope Air Force Base.
With the terrorist attacks of 9-11 rallying the nation for war, Chapman headed for Afghanistan and a rendezvous with military history.
The Battle of Takur Ghar
By March of 2002, the American invasion of Afghanistan to root out the Taliban was well underway. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces proved tenacious, and the terrain of Afghanistan offered refuge and tactical advantages which the technologically superior coalition had to combat.
The coalition forces launched Operation Anaconda, which was designed to destroy enemy forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains. On March 4, Chapman was aboard a MH-47E Chinook with orders to insert with a group a team of Navy SEALs in what would be known as the Battle of Takur Ghar.
This engagement would later be the subject of a great deal of scrutiny as it resulted in heavy losses for the Special Operations community. Whether it was through poor planning or unfortunate luck, Chapman and the SEALs would encounter a heavily entrenched enemy force on the hilltop of Takur Ghar.
Thus began one of the more controversial engagements of the war.
No Man Left Behind
Almost as instantly as Chapman’s Chinook arrived it became riddled with small arms fire and took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), which resulted in a Navy SEAL falling from the craft onto the snow-packed hilltop below.
Unable to do anything to save the SEAL in the moment, the heavily damaged helicopter was able to egress and land 7 miles away from the initial engagement. Without hesitation, Chapman jumped into his assigned role and began to coordinate with an AC-130 gunship in the area.
Despite the fact that it would not have been his primary role, Chapman volunteered to rescue the missing SEAL from the enemy stronghold. He came upon the enemy and killed two instantly while moving onto a second entrenched machine gun. The rescue force then became engulfed with enemy fire.
Despite being heavily wounded, Chapman continued to fight as the team desperately searched for a solution. Believing Chapman had succumbed to his wounds, the team decided to withdraw due to the heavy enemy fire.
An Honor Delayed
However, it is here that controversy would again rise and gallantry in the face of all odds would emerge. Many years after his last gallant stand, advancements in video technology revealed shocking additional details.
Chapman had survived the engagement and continued to fight after the SEAL team withdrew. He can be seen fighting with multiple enemy combatants, even dispatching one during hand to hand combat. Chapman then made his way to a bunker before a direct RPG hit ended his gallant stand.
With the new information at hand, Chapman who had posthumously received the Air Force Cross had his awarded upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He was also posthumously promoted to Master Sergeant.
While the Battle of Takur Ghar will forever be embroiled in controversy, that gallant men fought to the last is beyond contestation. John Chapman will forever be enshrined in the halls of military history and has earned the eternal respect of any who know that he fought at the now infamous Takur Ghar.