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Medal Of Honor Awarded Posthumously To Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman


At the White House today, President Trump presented a posthumous Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, to the widow of Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Soon after the terror attacks of September 11, John volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan. He walked into his superior's office and said, I need to go.

CORNISH: Chapman died on a rugged, snowy peak in eastern Afghanistan back in March 2002 desperately trying to protect his comrades. NPR's Tom Bowman has his story.


TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The distress call came in the middle of the night. It was from an American commando unit, Mako 30. Their helicopter came under Taliban attack. An American Navy SEAL fell out into the snow below. Now they were going back to get him.

CHIEF MASTER SGT ROB HARRISON: They flew directly back into a hornet's nest.

BOWMAN: That's Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Rob Harrison. He watched it all from his AC-130 gunship flying high above the battlefield. Infrared pictures on the computer screen showed grainy figures stream out of their Chinook helicopter straight toward Taliban bunkers. The first commando stumbled.

HARRISON: Sergeant Chapman - that's the second person off - he takes the point, and he goes straight towards the bunker and eliminates bunker number one.

BOWMAN: Chapman kills two al-Qaida fighters and comes under fire again, this time from a machine gun from still another bunker. It was all close contact, what one officer called a firefight in a phone booth. But there's another problem in the skies above. The gunship, complete with two large guns, can't make radio contact with the commando unit. The gunship's call sign is GRIM 32.

HARRISON: They're calling, hey, GRIM, this is MAKO. But unfortunately, as we to respond, they don't hear us. We can hear them, but they don't hear us.

BOWMAN: And since the gunship can't communicate with the ground, they can't fire. For the time being, the commando unit called MAKO 30 is on its own. Sergeant Chapman, whose specialty was calling in airstrikes, moves away from the cover of a large rock and tree and into the open. He takes out the machine gunner but is wounded and falls into the snow. Harrison remembers seeing bullets and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades flash on his computer screen.

HARRISON: The team has taken multiple casualties, and the decision is made to try and break contact.

BOWMAN: Break contact, start heading toward a safer place. The head of the commando unit, Master Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, slides over toward the wounded Chapman in the snow. Slabinski talked about that moment last spring during an interview with Fox News when he himself was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.


BRITT SLABINSKI: I crawl over to John, crawl over the top of John looking for some sign of life from him. And I didn't get any - no movement, no sound or anything from him and then make the decision we're going to continue on, relocate over the side of the mountain, just over the hill. It wasn't more than 20 feet just to get out of the direct fire.

BOWMAN: So convinced Chapman was dead, he led the commandos slipping and sliding down the mountain. But Chapman wasn't dead. He was unconscious. He woke up and started firing again, trying to prevent the al-Qaida fighters from destroying a rescue helicopter. His body was recovered later that day outside the bunker.

Chapman was initially awarded the Air Force Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor. But in 2016, the Air Force, using new technology and enhanced videos, was able to study Chapman's final moments alive, his desperate efforts to help his comrades escape. Command Chief Master Sergeant Greg Smith of the Air Force Special Operations Command explains.

CHIEF MASTER SGT GREG SMITH: We didn't have the technology to put all of the different pieces together, so these just were theories. There were many that had this theory three months afterwards during the initial investigation.

BOWMAN: For Chief Master Sergeant Harrison, that mission long ago in the dead of night is never far from his thoughts.

HARRISON: The type of valor that is demonstrated by Sergeant Chapman is just one of those things for the history books.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Chapman is the first airman to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.