Nathan Ross Chapman was the first military casualty killed by enemy fire during the war in Afghanistan. At the time, the only flag available to drape his casket was a patch torn from the uniform of an airman loading his casket for the trip home. He was buried on January 11, 2002, one week after his death, with full military honors. He was interred at Tahoma National Cemetery in Washington.
After another 13 years, the CIA recognized him with a marble star on their Memorial Wall. Chapman, an Army Green Beret, was also CIA, officially detailed to the agency after the 9/11 attacks. He was working as a CIA paramilitary team’s communications specialist.
Before America realized it was in an endless war, before it became numbed by the number of casualties coming out of Afghanistan, Chapman’s death was a watershed event, the first of its kind in Afghanistan. The funeral was televised.
Much of Chapman’s story has never been told. The CIA has never said anything about him.After Chapman died, the agency recognized one other soldier, killed in 2007. That Marine received a star at the time of their death, yet it took the CIA 13 years to honor Chapman.
“We didn’t even know anything was going on relative to that star; we didn’t expect it, and we didn’t know anything about it,” Chapman’s father, Will, said during a recent interview in his home in Texas. He said the recognition from the CIA was part of his son’s final chapter, and he was grateful for it. It also acknowledges the pivotal role that Special Operations forces played with the CIA in the early days of the Afghan war.
Following the ceremony, CIA director John Brennan met privately with Chapman’s family. He apologized for the long wait but gave no reason for the delay. “He just said it should have been a long time ago,” said Will Chapman.
Chapman is survived by a wife and two children, Brandon and Amanda, who were 1 and 2 at the time of their father’s death.
Chapman was a veteran who had jumped into Panama as a ranger. He served in Iraq and Haiti. He was a qualified combat scuba diver and sniper. He was known to his peers to be both a consummate professional and the life of the party, enjoying quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
He transferred back to Fort Lewis, Washington, from Okinawa just before the 9/11 attacks.
“America’s going to war over this,” he told his father in the weeks that followed 9/11. “And they’re not going without me.“And then he was gone,” the elder Chapman recalled.
He went to Afghanistan as a member of what the CIA referred to as Team Hotel – a six-man unit made up of three Special Forces soldiers, two CIA paramilitary officers, and a CIA contractor. Chapman was chosen along with two other Green Berets from more than 1,300 soldiers in 1st Special Forces Group. The CIA needed communications specialists and medics for their mission in Afghanistan and it tapped 1st Group almost immediately after 9/11 to fill that need, according to Lt. Gen. David Fridovitch, who was the group’s commander and a colonel at the time.
Chapman’s assignment is illustrative of the agency’s rapid expansion into the U.S. military, according to Henry Crumpton, the leader of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center task force, which led the war in Afghanistan. The relationship between the two organizations is necessary to field unconventional forces in a new type of unconventional war.
The team purchased several thousand dollars’ worth of outdoor gear from sporting goods stores and requested the weapons and equipment they would need. Then they spent October alternating between the CIA’s Camp Perry and the agency’s headquarters.
Chapman was in charge of the team’s communication equipment. Interfacing satellite radios and computers was a new discipline at the time, but Chapman had mastered it. He was known throughout the 1st Special Forces group as the best in his field. He earned the honor through deployments in Thailand and Malaysia.
Besides the radios, Chapman learned to use a computer program called ArcView which gave CIA and military units the ability to see real-time information about the battlefield.“He never took himself too seriously, even with all the crap we were throwing at him,” said Ken Stiles, the CIA targeting officer for all of the agency’s operations in Afghanistan.
While Team Hotel prepared to deploy, other teams were already scattered throughout Afghanistan. Team Jawbreaker was the first in. Along with Teams Bravo and Charlie, they connected with parts of the Northern Alliance fighting against the Taliban. Team Echo was in contact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In December, Teams Juliet and Romeo went into Tora Bora in an attempt to corner Osama bin Laden near the Pakistan border.
Team Hotel headed for Pakistan before Afghanistan. They attempted to work a deal with the Pakistan military to get their help pinning down bin Laden.The Pakistani military required more training and equipment than the team could provide and the deal fell through. In the meantime, U.S. and Afghan forces reclaimed Kabul and, days after Thanksgiving, Team Hotel left Pakistan for Kabul.
Team Hotel spent Christmas in Afghanistan’s capital. They added five members to their team from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and prepared for a mission in Khost, on the eastern border of the country.
The last time Chapman called home was Christmas. He didn’t say where he was, only that he was safe.
“I said to him at the end of the conversation, I’m sorry you’re not able to be with your family,” his father said.
“I know, Dad,” he replied. “But I’m with my second family, and they’re a great bunch of guys.”
About a week after Christmas, Team Hotel flew to Khost. The team had to pay their way into the town by offering large amounts of money to one of the tribes for admission and protection.The plan was for the team to “plant the flag” for the CIA and prevent al-Qaeda from setting up a base of operations there. They were the first Americans there since the beginning of the war.
The team set up a basic base of operations in an old Russian schoolhouse. On the night before Chapman died, the team sent a four-man group to scout an abandoned Soviet airfield.The airfield would later be named after Chapman. It was the site of a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in 2009.
The next morning, the team leader and a senior CIA official went to a meeting with local tribal leaders in an abandoned government building. The meeting got off to a poor start, with the tribal leaders getting into an argument. After tea and a promise from the CIA to help rebuild Khost, the meeting ended on somewhat good terms.
That afternoon, the team took four white Toyota Hillux pickups and some Afghan escorts to what they thought was an al-Qaeda safe house, based on intercepted transmissions.“Us being there wasn’t accomplishing anything, besides maybe getting us into more trouble,” said Scott Satterlee, a Special Forces medic assigned to Chapman’s unit.
The team returned to their trucks and headed down one of the few paved roads in Khost. The road was washed out in one area. The first three trucks made it through. When the fourth entered the culvert, three men with Kalashnikovs opened fire from roughly 30 feet away, each emptying their magazines into the truck.
The truck contained Chapman, a CIA paramilitary officer, the CIA contractor and an Afghan driver. Two rounds hit the officer in the chest. One bullet shattered Chapman’s pelvis and severed his femoral artery. Who fired back at the attackers is unclear, but Chapman’s M4 carbine was empty with its bolt locked to the rear – evidence that he shot every round before collapsing from blood loss.
Chapman and the officer both collapsed and the Afghan driver sped back to the schoolhouse, covering the distance in a minute and a half. The truck was full of Chapman’s blood and he was unconscious. The team worked to keep Chapman alive. The medic stuffed the wound with gauze while someone knelt on his navel while they made the 45-minute helicopter flight to Kabul. Five minutes before landing, Chapman stopped breathing.
The paramilitary officer survived with two sucking chest wounds.Chapman’s body was placed in his sleeping bag and loaded back into the helicopter at 5 p.m. on January 4th, 2002.
Who shot Chapman and why is not clear. Some say that a local tribe was trying to extort more money from the Americans. Others say that they were attached to the Haqqanis – a powerful faction that aligned against the U.S. and fought U.S. troops for years.
“He always knew how to find his way into the action,” his father said. “That’s why he went in the military, to do this stuff. … But he knew the risk involved.” The Army awarded Chapman the Bronze Star with a V for valor and the CIA posthumously gave him the intelligence star. The U.S. Special Forces in Thailand renamed itself after Chapman. A mural of him adorns their headquarters.
“The mystique went away, and reality showed up when Nate died,” said his former teammate Sgt. 1st Class Jason Koehler. “It took the Superman T-shirt from every one of us who thought we were invincible.”