Twenty years on from the Battle of Takur Ghar, also known as Roberts Ridge, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation remembers Air Force Sergeant John A. Chapman, who earned the Medal of Honor on March 4, 2002, and received it posthumously in 2018.
Born in 1965, Chapman grew up in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. As a student at Windsor Locks High School, he excelled as a varsity soccer player and also enjoyed muscle cars, restoring a Pontiac GTO. He was also a competitive diver who might have tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. Always eager to test himself against adversity, Chapman rose to every challenge, amazing family and friends with his ability to overcome each obstacle with ease. Yet he was a humble and soft-spoken young man who never bragged and reached out to others in need of help and support.
Enlisting in the Air Force in 1985, he worked first on information systems, but quickly grew impatient with the status quo and took the rough road. Chapman trained as an Air Force combat controller, a program that took two years and included high-intensity physical conditioning and technical education. Chapman was “sharp,” one of his instructors remembered. Where other men wilted under pressure—only one in ten graduated from Combat Control School—Chapman excelled. “During one of his first days at Combat Control School,” said the instructor, “I noticed a slight smirk on his face like [the work] was too simple for him…and it was.” Assigned to the 1721st Combat Control Squadron at a base in North Carolina, Chapman met and married his life partner, Valerie, and together they had two daughters, Madison and Brianna. He dedicated himself to fatherhood with the same intensity that he did to the U.S. military, in a way that few men could accomplish. “He would come home from a long trip and immediately have on his father hat—feeding, bathing, reading, and getting his girls ready for bed,” said one of his fellow servicemen. “They were his life and he was proud of them . . . what I saw was a great father.”
On March 4, 2002, as part of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Sergent Chapman formed an important part of a special operations team including Army Rangers and Navy SEALs that was to be inserted on the mountain of Takur Ghar to establish a reconnaissance outpost and observe enemy activity in the surrounding valleys. Unfortunately, the operation ran into trouble from the start as enemy forces attacked and severely damaged the MH-47 “Chinook” helicopter tasked to deploy the Americans. During the action, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts toppled off the helicopter’s ramp and onto the mountain. The helicopter then made a controlled crash landing some miles away.
Without hesitation, and with the complete support of his fellow team members including Chapman, Senior Chief and Navy SEAL Britt Slabinski elected to return to the mountaintop to rescue Roberts, if possible, despite the overwhelming odds against the Americans. A second Chinook carried the Americans back and managed to debark them despite the intense fire. They then assaulted uphill to rescue their comrade. During the action, Chapman was engaged by fire from an entrenched enemy position. He assaulted and destroyed this position. Seeing his teammates taking fire from another strongpoint, in complete disregard for his own safety Chapman moved into open ground to attack and was cut down by enemy bullets and severely injured. Despite these injuries, he continued to engage the enemy, in conjunction with his teammates and then single-handedly, with the same courage, single-minded dedication, and devotion to the welfare of his friends that he had shown throughout his life. In the process, he saved the lives of many others at the cost of his own.
Although Sergeant John Chapman was initially awarded the Air Force Cross for his courageous conduct on March 4, 2002, upon further review his decoration was upgraded to a Medal of Honor that President Donald Trump presented to his family on August 22, 2018. He was also ceremoniously promoted to the rank of master sergeant. Chapman’s widow Valerie captured the essence of her late husband’s personal character on the occasion, saying that he “would want to recognize the other men that lost their lives. Even though he did something he was awarded the Medal of Honor for, he would not want the other guys to be forgotten – that they were part of the team together. I think he would say that his Medal of Honor was not just for him, but for all of the guys who were lost.”