As the pre-dawn twilight crept over an Afghan mountainside, an Air Force commando named Jay huddled in the snow, listening to a distressed voice crackle over his radio, then fade away. Moments later, he says, the voice came again, breaking through the static in little more than an anguished whisper: “This is Mako Three Zero Charlie…. This is Mako Three Zero Charlie….” The same six words, over and over, each time dissipating before Jay could hear anything else.
Jay was part of an elite reconnaissance team operating behind enemy lines, and he immediately recognized the call sign and voice. They belonged to his counterpart on another team: Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman. From his hidden perch, Jay responded again and again on his powerful satellite-capable radio. But he received no reply. The voice continued for about 40 minutes, he says, like a plaintive mantra—“This is Mako Three Zero Charlie…. This is Mako Three Zero Charlie….” Then it fell silent. It wasn’t until the next evening that Jay learned Chapman had died, that he was the last American to hear him alive.
Today, some 16 years after Chapman’s tragic death, fierce disagreement over what happened on that snowy peak threatens to overshadow two Medal of Honor recommendations that—as of publication—await White House approval. The bitter dispute pits members of the Navy SEALs against Air Force special operators and Army Rangers. It has entangled numerous senior military leaders, several of whom had personal links to the desperate fight on Takur Ghar mountain.
The controversy revolves around Operation Anaconda, a March 2002 attempt to surround and destroy a large Al-Qaeda force. It took place in eastern Afghanistan and cost the lives of eight Americans, seven of them on Takur Ghar. Chapman was among the dead. Using Predator drone footage and other evidence, the Air Force has argued that a SEAL Team 6 unit mistakenly left him for dead while retreating under heavy fire. Afterward, the Air Force claims, Chapman fought on for an hour, badly wounded and alone, before Al-Qaeda militants killed him as he provided cover for an approaching helicopter.
The SEALs, however, reject the claim that Chapman was alive when they fled. “The SEALs did not want to be told—officially—that they left a comrade on that mountain alive,” says a former defense official, who, like most sources mentioned in this story, requested anonymity for security reasons or to describe sensitive high-level discussions about members of classified units.
Never-released witness statements and video footage seen by a Newsweek reporter appear to support the Air Force’s version of events. Defense Secretary James Mattis eventually agreed, sending the recommendation to award Chapman a Medal of Honor to the White House in the fall of 2017. Should President Donald Trump sign off on it, Chapman’s Medal of Honor would be the first based primarily on technical intelligence rather than eyewitness accounts. (The Air Force and the Navy both declined to make any official comment for this story.)
What has shocked and angered some sources familiar with the battle is that Mattis has also recommended the same award for then–Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, the SEAL team leader who allegedly left Chapman behind. Some special operators blame Slabinski for not only Chapman’s death but also the lost lives of six other special ops on the mountain. Others say it’s absurd to recommend someone for the Medal of Honor for his bravery in a fight in which he left a teammate behind, albeit by mistake. Informed by a Newsweek reporter that Slabinski was in line for a Medal of Honor, an Army special operator who took part in the operation was aghast. “You kicked me in the nuts when you told me that,” he says. Mike, a former Air Force targeting analyst who monitored the Predator feed of the Takur Ghar fight in real time and re-watched it twice last year at the Air Force’s request, was similarly taken aback. “I’m completely shocked that the Navy is putting a package up.”
Some observers are angry at the Navy for even recommending Slabinski for the award, which they claim was part of a campaign to sabotage the Air Force’s effort on behalf of Chapman. Such a campaign would be unprecedented, according to military awards expert Doug Sterner. “I cannot think of a single instance in which one branch of service opposed a Medal of Honor for another one,” he says.
Chapman’s supporters say the entire episode shows the extraordinary length that the SEALs will go to protect their reputation. A SEAL who took part in the Takur Ghar fight strongly disputed that assessment: “That’s a bunch of BS.” The blame, he says, lies with the Air Force for allowing the controversy to become public without doing “due diligence,” which would have included interviewing him and his fellow SEALs. “The Air Force caused all the problem,” he adds, “by just trying to jam something down everybody’s throat without even talking to us.”
Others familiar with the battle sprang to Slabinski’s defense, even as they acknowledged the unusual optics of awarding him a Medal of Honor. “He’s an introvert, but he’s very bold in his actions,” says a former senior SEAL Team 6 officer who served frequently with Slabinski. “I thought he was a great leader.”
A former defense official familiar with the discussions over the Medal of Honor recommendations is adamant that Slabinski, a second-generation SEAL who retired from the Navy as a master chief petty officer in 2014, deserves his award, just as Chapman does. But he bemoans how, as the two award packages wended their way through the approvals process, the heroism of two brave men has at times taken second place to what he termed “the tribal aspects” of the special ops community.
“It is a bureaucratic story,” he says, “that is not covered in glory.”
Fire on the Mountain
That story began less than six months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when the United States launched Operation Anaconda, a high-profile battle against Al-Qaeda. From the beginning, it went awry. The Americans had expected the jihadi fighters to be massed in the villages on the floor of the Shahikot Valley, but they weren’t. Instead, when the U.S. infantry landed in the valley by helicopter on March 2, they realized the enemy had dug in on the high ground overlooking it. For two days, the militants used automatic weapons and mortar fire to pin down the Americans and forced their Afghan allies to retreat before they even reached the valley.
There was, however, one successful part of the operation. In the days before the battle, two reconnaissance teams from the Army’s Delta Force and one from SEAL Team 6 sneaked behind enemy lines from their base in Gardez, 8 miles north of the Shahikot. From their vantage points high above the valley, they called in devastating airstrikes and provided critical intelligence on the Al-Qaeda forces. Their success caught the attention of SEAL Team 6’s forward headquarters at Bagram Air Base, about 90 miles north of Gardez. The reconnaissance effort and Team 6 were each part of a task force composed of units from Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC (pronounced “jay-sock”), the secretive organization that runs many of the military’s most sensitive missions. Team 6 had seen very little action in Afghanistan and was eager to get into the fight. Early on March 3, a day after the main assault, the task force commander gave the order to send more SEALs into the valley. One of those teams, led by Slabinski, was called Mako 30.
Slabinski’s mission was to establish an observation post on top of Takur Ghar, a 10,469-foot mountain in the southeast corner of the Shahikot. The plan was to insert Mako 30’s eight operators by helicopter near the mountain and have them patrol up to the peak under the cover of darkness. This would allow the SEALs, wearing night vision goggles, to spot any enemy fighters, shoot them, call in airstrikes or get away. But a series of unforeseeable delays meant the team ran out of time to land at the starting location and maneuver up the mountain before dawn.
Meanwhile, the chain of command began to fray. Rather than communicating through the reconnaissance operations center where they were at Gardez, the SEALs began talking on the radio straight back to their headquarters in Bagram. Slabinski told Bagram he wanted to postpone the mission 24 hours. But, for reasons that have never been made clear, his bosses pressured him to get to the top of the mountain that night. Feeling he had little choice, Slabinski asked the Army special operations helicopter crew to fly his team straight to the peak. This would break a cardinal rule of reconnaissance: never infiltrate by helicopter directly to your observation post, as it gives away your position to the enemy. But an Air Force gunship had flown over the frozen peak earlier that night and said it was clear of enemy fighters.
The helicopter crew agreed to do what Slabinski had asked. When Mako 30’s Chinook helicopter, known as Razor 03, arrived over the mountaintop, however, militants encamped there fired on the aircraft, badly damaging it. As the pilot struggled to abort the landing and wrestle his helicopter away from danger, Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts from Mako 30 fell out the back and into the deep snow. With the aircraft too badly damaged to return to the peak, the pilot crash-landed at the north end of the valley. Another helicopter picked up the crew and the seven other operators and whisked them off to Gardez.
Aware that the militants were unlikely to spare Roberts if they captured him, six members of Mako 30 quickly boarded another special ops aircraft that flew them back to the mountain. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were already too late. Analysis of Predator footage later revealed that the Al-Qaeda fighters killed Roberts just before 4:30 a.m. on March 4. All they knew was that their mission was incredibly dangerous. “When I made the decision to rescue Neil, I just knew at the time that that was going to be the last thing that I did on this earth,” Slabinski told a Navy SEAL Foundation audience in New York on March 2, 2017. “I was convinced of it.”
The helicopter touched down on the peak shortly before 5 a.m. Slabinski jumped off first but stumbled. Next was Chapman, the team’s only non-SEAL. He belonged to the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron (STS). Known by its members as “the Two-Four,” the unit is the Air Force equivalent of Delta Force or SEAL Team 6, and it works exclusively for JSOC. Chapman’s primary role, as Mako 30’s combat controller, was to call in airstrikes.
The Mako 30 operators again faced withering fire when they alighted from the helicopter. As the aircraft departed, the men split into three pairs. Chapman and Slabinski headed uphill, slogging through the knee-deep snow to reach a bunker from which they were taking fire. They killed the two men in the bunker, but then machine gun fire erupted from a second bunker nearby. Suddenly, Chapman went down. Slabinski glanced over at him. The airman’s rifle was laying across his chest, the aiming laser rising and falling in time with his breathing, so the SEAL knew he was alive. Moments later, a second member of the team was wounded as enemy fire poured from seemingly every direction. The SEALs were overmatched, and they didn’t see Roberts anywhere. Slabinski had just seconds to get his men out of the crossfire. He looked back toward Chapman. The laser was no longer moving. The airman, he concluded, was dead. Slabinski ordered his men to retreat, so the SEALs ran and slid down the side of the mountain, pursued by machine gun fire.
The SEALs found temporary shelter under a rocky overhang. From there, they called in their location to an Air Force gunship. Then, the five survivors, two seriously wounded, moved about 5,000 feet in six hours to a position where a helicopter eventually rescued them.
But as the SEALs made their escape, satellite radio failures and confusion between various headquarters meant that a JSOC quick reaction force—an Army Ranger platoon—launched from Bagram in two Chinooks and headed for Takur Ghar. While one aircraft awaited further instruction, the other flew straight to the peak, unaware that two helicopters had already been shot up trying to land there. This time, the militants downed the Chinook, known as Razor 01, with a rocket-propelled grenade as it landed. In the ensuing daylong battle, three Rangers, a special ops aviator and an Air Force pararescueman were killed before the Rangers finally gained control of the mountaintop.
‘Something Was Wrong’
After the fight on Takur Ghar, Army and Air Force special operators blamed their losses on poor decision-making by the SEALs. Some members of Chapman’s unit, the 24th STS, were so upset that they tried to avoid assignments with SEAL Team 6, says a former Delta Force operator.
And it didn’t take long for word to leak that perhaps Chapman hadn’t died when the SEALs said he did. “Guys knew something was wrong the next day, because of the way Navy guys were talking about it,” says a former combat controller familiar with the fight and its aftermath. Within weeks, Chapman’s colleagues in the 24th STS concluded that he had still been alive when the SEALs retreated and had fought on alone against impossible odds, he adds.
That possibility was first officially raised by Army Lieutenant Colonel Andy Milani, a special operations aviation officer, whom JSOC appointed to investigate the battle. Milani’s probe remains classified, but he repeated his findings in an unclassified paper he wrote while attending the Army War College in 2003. In that paper, he noted that Predator footage had captured a fight on Takur Ghar’s peak during the period between the SEALs’ retreat and the downing of Razor 01. Milani’s investigation showed that Roberts was dead by the time Mako 30 returned to the mountain, but someone was still fighting on the top of Takur Ghar at a time when no Americans were supposedly alive there. According to Milani, the footage showed a man in a bunker, engaging at least two other fighters in close combat. The lieutenant colonel laid out two possible explanations: either Al-Qaeda fighters mistook one another for Americans or the mysterious figure was Chapman, fighting for his life after the SEALs left him behind.
Milani did not reach a conclusion, but in January 2003 the Air Force awarded Chapman a posthumous Air Force Cross for his actions up to the point when Slabinski had said he was killed. (Like the Navy Cross and the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force Cross is a valor award second only to the Medal of Honor.) In making the case for this award, the Air Force relied heavily on witness statements from three of the surviving members of Mako 30, who all described him in heroic terms. Slabinski, in particular, credited Chapman with saving their lives. “I know if John hadn’t engaged the first enemy position, it would have surely killed us all before we reached cover,” Slabinski said in his statement, which Newsweekobtained. “John Died [sic]saving us from the enemy fire which was effective from three sides when he was killed…. John deserves the highest medal we can get for him.”
The Navy likewise awarded Slabinski a Navy Cross for his actions from the moment Razor 03 crash-landed to his team’s eventual rescue after the loss of Roberts and Chapman. “During this entire sustained engagement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski exhibited classic grace under fire in steadfastly leading the intrepid rescue operation, saving the lives of his wounded men and setting the conditions for the ultimate vanquishing of the enemy and the seizing of Takur Ghar,” reads the citation.
With the casualties buried and the service crosses awarded, Takur Ghar faded from the headlines for more than a decade. But within the tight-knit world of Air Force special operators, a desire still burned for the White House to recognize what they viewed as the full extent of Chapman’s heroism. Thirteen years after his death, they would get their chance.
‘A Hell of a Battle’
Since the Vietnam War, no Air Force personnel have received the Medal of Honor. And in May 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James read an article that wondered what it would take for an airman to be awarded the medal in the post-9/11 era. The topic intrigued James, who was in charge of recommending Medals of Honor to the secretary of defense, who in turn had to decide whether to endorse the recommendations and submit them to the White House for approval. Because almost all of the seven Air Force Crosses and about half of the Silver Stars awarded to airmen since September 11, 2001, had gone to special operators, James ordered Air Force Special Operations Command to investigate whether any awards deserved to be upgraded. Complicating James’s directive: Pentagon regulations stipulated that for a lesser award to become a Medal of Honor, new information had to be presented.
After at least six months, according to James, her team reported back that it had identified a possible upgrade for Chapman’s Air Force Cross. The new information consisted largely of a careful analysis of the video shot by the Predator of the action on Takur Ghar. Individuals appeared as little more than black blobs on the infrared footage the drone was transmitting as it circled more than a mile above the mountain. By comparing and combining the Predator footage with video shot by a circling Air Force gunship, analysts were able to isolate the blob that was Chapman and track his movements.
The Air Force then created a picture-within-a-picture video presentation, in which an animated re-creation of the fight fills most of the screen, synced to the drone footage playing in a box. The video has never been made public, and Air Force Special Operations Command declined to comment for this story. But a Newsweek reporter was able to view the video and take notes. As an Air Force officer narrates, the video shows Slabinski jumping from the back ramp of the Chinook, losing his balance and falling into the snow. Next off the helicopter is Chapman, who fires as he charges toward the first bunker, which is about 100 feet away. Slabinski follows, at one point almost catching up with him. Then Chapman surges ahead and arrives at the bunker, shooting into it for several seconds before Slabinski reaches him, about 90 seconds after getting off the helicopter.
“When Sergeant Chapman reached the bunker complex, he killed two fighters and took control of the terrain,” says the narrator in his voice-over. “By destroying the enemy’s front-line position, Sergeant Chapman eliminated the closest threat to the Mako 30 team.” The video thus validates Slabinski’s statement, in which he credits Chapman with killing two enemy fighters, then occupying the bunker. The only difference: Chapman probably fired the shots that killed the two Al-Qaeda fighters in the bunker from almost point-blank range, rather than the “twenty-five yards” Slabinski estimated in his statement.
Chapman then opens fire on the second Al-Qaeda bunker, about 30 feet away. “Without hesitation or regard for his own safety, Sergeant Chapman moved from a position of cover to engage the nearby machine gun,” the narrator says. “While Sergeant Chapman was firing at Bunker 2, an enemy fighter flanked him, which resulted in very close combat. Sergeant Chapman killed the enemy fighter, but during this engagement, Sergeant Chapman was shot and went down.” Although it’s not possible to identify the exact moment he was shot on the video, it must have been within two minutes of getting off the helicopter. Slabinski has said that at this point he glanced at Chapman and assessed he was still alive.
Of the other four SEALs on the mission, two followed Slabinski and Chapman. The other two headed in the opposite direction. The footage shows one of the SEALs who had joined Slabinski on top of a boulder shooting an M60 machine gun before getting shot and falling down, and the three SEALs huddling at the base of the boulder for a few seconds. Less than three minutes after arriving, the SEALs begin their retreat. Slabinski has said that it was then that he concluded that Chapman was dead.
Slabinski declined to be interviewed for this article, directing a reporter to the Naval Special Warfare Command public affairs office, which did not respond to requests for comment. But in 2016, he told The New York Times that after giving the order to withdraw, he actually crawled over Chapman’s body in the rush to get off the mountain and saw no sign of life. “I’m already 95 percent in my mind that he’s been killed,” Slabinski said. “That’s why I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to move.’”
However, the Predator video, which offers an uninterrupted view of Slabinski during this period, does not appear to show him crawling anywhere near Chapman. But it does show him and two other SEALs moving past the body of Neil Roberts as they begin their retreat. “They go right over him,” says the former combat controller, who is familiar with the footage. Because the SEALs never mentioned finding Roberts, some have speculated that Slabinski became disoriented and confused Roberts’s body with Chapman’s, which was only a few yards away. “It’s actually a common theory that the body that Slab believes he checked was Roberts,” says the former combat controller. “That happens to be my theory.”
The SEALs are on the peak of the mountain for less than four minutes. As they make their escape, Chapman’s body lies motionless in the first bunker for about 12 minutes. But then the footage captures movement there, even though no one has approached it since the SEALs had fled. The man in the bunker proceeds to move around and fire his weapon for about an hour. “I’m 110 percent certain that’s Chapman,” says Mike, the Air Force targeting analyst for the original mission. In a 2017 analysis of the video conducted for the Air Force and obtained by Newsweek, Mike counted 39 distinct muzzle flashes emanating from the first bunker between approximately 5:40 a.m. and 6:08 a.m. “It’s evident—you can see Chapman is definitely pulling the trigger on that M4, and rounds are coming,” he says. “I don’t know how many [militants]he took out, but it was a hell of a battle.”
Mike’s analysis notes the man in the bunker is firing in almost every direction. Chapman, he says, was desperately defending himself from enemies that had him surrounded. Twice, Al-Qaeda fighters managed to creep up on the bunker, and Chapman is seen killing them in close quarters combat. The nature of the fight and the daylight that was spreading over the mountain make it highly unlikely, the former combat controller says, that this was a case of two enemy fighters attacking each other by mistake. “They’re on top of each other,” he adds. “There’s no confusion here.”
The Air Force claims that shortly after Chapman kills the second Al-Qaeda fighter, and moments before the helicopter carrying the Rangers arrives over the peak, he emerges from his covered position and shoots at the militants in the second bunker. This action led to his death, and is central to the Air Force’s case that he deserves the Medal of Honor. Chapman took this enormous risk to provide covering fire for the helicopter that was headed for the peak, the Air Force contends. “Sergeant Chapman understood the ramifications of his actions,” says the Air Force narrator. “He selflessly moved in front of the enemy machine gun in Bunker 2 in order to engage the threat to the inbound helicopter.”
That decision is worthy of a Medal of Honor on its own, according to the former combat controller. “He climbs out of the bunker having been shot a half a dozen times [and attacked in]hand-to-hand combat, and then the final two rounds that took his life are the only thing that stopped him,” he says. “Shot in the foot, the leg, the torso. I mean, this guy, we don’t know what he thought, but he made the decision in as much pain and fear as he must have had, to climb out of the bunker when the helicopter was coming…. It’s an amazing, courageous thing to do.”
The Rangers eventually found his body in the first bunker. An autopsy later revealed that Chapman was killed by two bullets that hit him in the upper body. “One exploded his aorta,” says the former combat controller, who is familiar with the autopsy, “and then your blood pressure drops to zero, and you expire, and that takes 30 seconds, maybe.”
Mako Three Zero Charlie
The video presentation wasn’t the only evidence the Air Force used to buttress its case for Chapman. It also obtained a sworn statement from someone never previously interviewed in connection with Takur Ghar: Jay, Chapman’s counterpart on one of the Delta Force teams, which occupied an observation post roughly 3 miles north of Takur Ghar. Jay was from Chapman’s unit and knew his radio style. In September 2016, in an affidavit obtained by Newsweek, he told an Air Force lawyer that he repeatedly heard Chapman’s voice and call sign—Mako Three Zero Charlie—on the radio during the period when the video shows him fighting for his life. “The voice on the radio was John Chapman,” Jay said, in comments never previously made public.
A Mako 30 SEAL claims the Navy investigated Jay’s assertions and concluded they were inaccurate. “That was all disproved by comms logs and who was where,” tells Newsweek. “When it was dug into, it was not factual.” He adds, “We were on all the same freqs [radio frequencies], and we never heard that.”
The former combat controller disputes this assertion. “They weren’t on the same freqs,” he says. “That’s a smokescreen. He’s toeing the party line.” The SEALs would have been on an inter-team frequency on their handheld radios, whereas “Jay would have been on battlefield common [frequency],” the former combat controller says. He adds that there were no logs in which Chapman’s calls would have been recorded, because the frequency he was calling on would not have reached any of the command posts where those logs were kept.
In addition to the video and Jay’s witness statement, Chapman’s autopsy, which the Air Force re-analyzed as part of its investigation, also supported the case that he had fought for a sustained period on the peak. “The man was shot and fragged 16 times, to include…contusions on his face, nose, neck and hands,” says the former combat controller. Chapman’s autopsy states that all the airman’s wounds occurred before his death, he says. “That didn’t happen in the first two minutes.” The bruises to Chapman’s hands, neck and face, he adds, were likely the result of hand-to-hand combat with the two militants who made it as far as the bunker before he killed them.
A final piece of evidence supporting the Air Force’s case: According to two sources familiar with the details of Chapman’s award package, when he and his gear were recovered, he was found to have fired all his usable ammunition before succumbing to his wounds, Chapman had emptied six 30-round magazines—far more than he would have during the two minutes or less that elapsed before Slabinski saw him fall.
The Blame Game
In January 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed the military to conduct a review of service crosses and Silver Stars from the post-9/11 conflicts, to see if any warranted an upgrade. The Air Force’s attempt to boost Chapman’s award became part of the review. In his directive, Carter waived the requirement that “new, substantive, and relevant material information be provided to justify an upgrade,” says Army Major Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman. However, Air Force officials and others close to the Chapman upgrade effort were seemingly unaware that he did so.
The Air Force divided its conclusions about Chapman’s exploits into his actions from the moment Mako 30 landed back on Takur Ghar to when the SEALs retreated and then the events on the peak after the SEALs had withdrawn. For Air Force Secretary James, it was the latter, and particularly the video evidence, that convinced her that Chapman deserved the Medal of Honor.
“That was all I needed,” she tells Newsweek. “That was like forensic proof in a crime scene, almost.” She forwarded her recommendation to Carter’s office, confident that the Air Force’s case was ironclad. “I thought it was going to be a slam-dunk, easy-to-get through-package,” James says.
On August 27, 2016, The New York Times published a story (co-authored by this reporter) about the Air Force’s effort to get Chapman a Medal of Honor. The article said that the Air Force’s “findings could rekindle old tensions” in the special operations community over the mission. And to James’s surprise—and alarm—it did. “People were afraid of getting blamed for the fact that the mission didn’t go well, and then on top of that it’s a godawful thing to believe now that you left someone behind for dead who in fact was alive,” she says. “There’s a lot of guilt going on here, and there’s also the reputation of the SEALs at stake.”
Within a few days of the story’s publication, a gathering of senior military leaders gave James the chance to speak with Army General Tony Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, she says. He had been the 1st Ranger Battalion commander in Afghanistan at the time of the battle. The three Rangers who died were his men, something no one had told her.
James says she asked Thomas if she could count on his support regarding her recommendation to upgrade Chapman’s award. He assured her his headquarters was “absolutely behind” the recommendation, she says. (A military official who has discussed this issue with Thomas says that according to the general, no such conversation took place.) James says she walked away from the conversation with renewed confidence that the upgrade would proceed smoothly. Events soon changed her mind.
‘It Was Very Hurtful’
From the beginning of its effort to get Chapman’s award upgraded, the Air Force appears to have taken extraordinary care not to impugn Slabinski or the SEALs. Air Force officials knew they had much to lose from picking a fight with such a politically influential group, so they tip-toed around the notion that members of the SEALs’ most elite outfit had inadvertently abandoned a teammate in the middle of a firefight. “Nobody was accusing Slabinski or any of the other members of the team of having done anything other than their very best under these terrible circumstances,” James says.
In his voice-over for the Air Force’s video presentation, the narrator describes Slabinski’s decision to retreat from the mountaintop in positive terms: “This bold action likely averted a catastrophic loss of the entire team. The team leader’s intent was to suppress the enemy with airpower. The team hoped to eliminate the threat, locate Petty Officer Roberts, recover Sergeant Chapman’s body and fulfill their commitment to leave no man behind. Once again, the enemy and the environment thwarted the team’s plan.”
Nonetheless, by late 2016, it was becoming clear that the SEALs were going to resist the Air Force’s attempt to upgrade Chapman’s award based on his actions after the SEALs retreated from the mountaintop. “They didn’t want to be seen as having left Tech Sergeant Chapman behind,” says a former Air Force official, adding that this applied to both the members of Mako 30 as well as the SEAL leaders. “It was very hurtful and very problematic for them on many levels.”
The SEALs began throwing up “bureaucratic roadblocks” in an attempt to delay or defeat the effort to upgrade Chapman’s Air Force Cross, the former Air Force official says. “There was a tremendous push [by the Air Force]to get this done by the end of the [Obama] administration,” says Gabe Camarillo, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs from January 2016 to January 2017. If President Barack Obama left office without awarding Chapman the medal, “there wasn’t any confidence that this wouldn’t die on the vine,” he says. Air Force officials held meeting after meeting with each other and with their counterparts in the office of the secretary of defense throughout 2016, breaking through one logjam after another. But just as it seemed Chapman’s package had a chance of getting to the White House in time, Pentagon bureaucrats intervened.
Staff in the office of Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine noticed that the SEALs had never signed their original witness statements for Chapman’s Air Force Cross. Those statements were part of the upgrade package. Levine and his staff were keen to get them signed, particularly because the Chapman case was otherwise “unprecedented” in its reliance on technical intelligence rather than eyewitnesses, James says. “So the appropriate people contacted these individuals and asked them to sign their words of 15 years ago,” James recalls. But after “a couple of months” of waiting for the SEALs, “they refused,” she claims. (Camarillo, the former Air Force assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, confirms this account.) “That’s when things broke down, and the SEALs…realized that ‘Oh, we can take a stand and maybe thwart this thing,’” says the former combat controller. (One Mako 30 SEAL says that he was not aware of this development and that he had never been asked for such a statement after the battle, let alone refused to sign one. Newsweek verified the existence of statements from three of his teammates and attempted to reach out to them, but was unable to speak to them.)
For Air Force officials, the SEALs’ alleged refusal to sign their witness statements represented a turning point. “I guess that’s when it really clicked in my mind: Yep, there is something more going on here, and what a shame,” James says. In frustration, Air Force officials explained what was happening to Levine’s staff, who finally allowed the package to proceed without the signatures. But valuable time had been lost.
SEAL Team 6 and Naval Special Warfare Command each opposed the Air Force’s effort to upgrade Chapman’s award based on the events after the SEALs retreated, according to multiple sources. Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski, who as head of Naval Special Warfare Command oversees all SEAL units, was in the thick of the debate. “The biggest advocate for Slabinski was Szymanski,” says a Navy officer familiar with the awards controversy. But Szymanski had a personal stake in how the Takur Ghar story was told. He had been Team 6’s director of operations during Anaconda, helping run Mako 30’s mission from Bagram. Slabinski has told others that when he arrived back at Bagram, bruised and exhausted from the ordeal, Szymanski was the only person to hug him and tell him he’d done a good job. Since that moment, a close bond developed between the two, says a former senior Team 6 officer who knows both men. “Ski was always very confident in Slab, and he was always very proud of him,” the former senior Team 6 officer says. “You could tell it was a good relationship.”
The way Szymanski saw it, “the Air Force was trying to come against the Navy and kind of shame Slab,” the former senior Team 6 officer says, and he was determined to stick up for him. “His point was ‘That dude [Slabinski] did everything humanly possible…. Not on your life are you going to fucking try to get Chappy [an award]which hurts Slab.’ And so I think he [ended up]doubling down to help Slab, because if Chappy gets it, the unspoken word is ‘Well, who left him behind?’”
But Szymanski’s fierce defense of Slabinski required the SEAL admiral to oppose any public acknowledgment of what the Air Force, in its study of the incident, called “Material Finding 2,” which said that Chapman fought on after the SEALs left him behind. “I just don’t know how you advocate for Slabinski and be accepting of…Finding 2,” says the Navy officer familiar with the controversy. Indeed, throughout 2016, the SEALs tried to persuade the Air Force and then Carter’s office to justify Chapman’s upgrade solely on the basis of his actions before the SEALs left the mountain, Camarillo says. According to former Air Force officials, by December 2016, with the package finally on Carter’s desk, the SEALs’ argument was apparently gaining traction at U.S. Special Operations Command, which doesn’t make the final decision but is allowed input.
That month, says a former senior Air Force official, Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told General David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, that he had changed his mind about giving Chapman’s upgrade package his full support. According to two former Air Force officials, Thomas said he was more than willing to support an upgrade based on Chapman’s actions up to the moment the SEALs retreated, but he wanted the Air Force to drop the second part of Chapman’s citation, which summarized his actions after the SEALs withdrew. (Navy Captain Jason Salata, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, referred all questions about his command’s role in the Medal of Honor process to the office of the secretary of defense.)
To James’s disappointment, the former senior Air Force official says, Goldfein told her he had granted Thomas’s request, worried that doing otherwise would mire the upgrade effort in months of debate. The Air Force was running out of time with the Obama administration, and Goldfein thought acceding to Thomas gave the service a better chance of securing Chapman’s upgrade. (Through a spokesperson, Goldfein declined to comment for this story.)
James was upset at the way Thomas had circumvented her, but there was little she could do, the former senior Air Force official says. A few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, the defense secretary signed Chapman’s upgrade package. James pleaded with the White House to fast-track the process, but it was too late. Getting it through the National Security Council and onto the president’s desk, as well as the logistical challenge of arranging the multiple ceremonies that are standard when the commander in chief presents the nation’s highest award for valor, required more time. As the Trump administration took office, the Chapman package returned to the Pentagon for another review.
“It got bounced back,” says James, who blamed the SEALs’ alleged stalling tactics for the failure to get the award approved in time. “A hundred percent, it caused that delay.”
As a political appointee, James left the Pentagon at the end of the Obama administration. As she departed, she called Chapman’s mother to tell her that her son’s package had been returned to the Pentagon. James chokes up at the memory of the conversation. “But I thought to myself, Well, surely, surely, surely under General Mattis, it’ll go back quickly,” she recalls.
Yet again, her optimism was misplaced.
‘Beyond the Call of Duty’
Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, the Navy surprised close observers of the Chapman upgrade saga. As part of the awards review directed by Carter, the service recommended that Slabinski’s Navy Cross also be upgraded to a Medal of Honor. A Mako 30 SEAL says that he first heard confirmation of the Navy’s intent in mid-January 2017 but that he had surmised it from rumors some months earlier. From what he heard from other SEALs later, it seemed the Navy viewed this as a quid pro quo for Chapman’s upgrade. “It started to become ‘We’re either giving two or giving none,’” the Mako 30 SEAL says. (He also thought the Navy would have recommended an upgrade for Slabinski even if the Air Force had not tried to do the same for Chapman. Slabinski deserved it, and the review gave the Navy the opportunity to make it happen, he says.)
When word of the Navy’s plan spread through the special ops community, some were shocked. “It’s just incredulous that they award him with the Medal of Honor,” says a retired special operations official intimately familiar with the battle. “Slab was completely at fault for everything that happened that night.”
He and others suggested that the Navy’s move was a direct reaction to the Air Force’s effort on behalf of Chapman. “They can’t stop Chapman’s package,” says Mike, the former targeting analyst. “So now they’re trying to save face.”
Even members of Slabinski’s own service were taken aback. Up to this point, the Navy’s Takur Ghar “narrative” had been “Slab got a Navy Cross for his valor that night; he didn’t leave anybody behind,” says the Navy officer familiar with the awards controversy. “It was never ‘What Slab did was worthy of the Medal of Honor.’”
Outgoing Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the last stop in the Navy’s approval chain for the upgrade, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Thomas Oppel, who served as his chief of staff, says that while he and Mabus were aware of “opinions about this that differed on whether Slabinski was deserving of this award,” it was not a major topic of discussion with Mabus, who approved the upgrade and forwarded it to Carter’s office.
The Air Force decided not to oppose Slabinski’s Medal of Honor recommendation. “The Air Force has never said a negative word about Slabinski,” James says. “Everybody believes he did his best.”
Nonetheless, the Navy’s move created a conundrum for the Pentagon. As the former combat controller puts it, “How can one man earn a Medal of Honor saving everyone else’s life, and the second guy—whose life was saved by the first, as he acknowledges in his witness statement, and who then makes the decision to leave the first guy for dead—also earn the nation’s highest medal?”
The answer, according to a former defense official, was that just like Slabinski’s Navy Cross, the upgrade would cover not just the firefight on the peak but also his bravery in leading his team back to Takur Ghar to try to rescue Roberts, and then in shepherding the survivors down the mountain to safety. It was the totality of Slabinski’s actions that persuaded Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson that he was worthy of the Medal of Honor, the former defense official says. “Given the harrowing situation he found himself in, his being able to lead the rest of the team to safety after losing two to enemy fire and having two more grievously wounded went above and beyond the call of duty,” he says.
But perhaps sensitive to the argument articulated by the former combat controller, the SEALs continued to object to the Air Force’s insistence that Chapman had survived beyond their departure. As a former senior Air Force official puts it: “They were still really putting up roadblocks.”
‘You’ll Throw Him Under the Bus’
Up to mid-2016, the SEALs seem to have portrayed Chapman’s actions before they allegedly left him for dead as heroic. But by that fall, they had started to change their stance in their efforts to resist the Air Force’s attempt to upgrade the airman’s award. In this new version of events, Chapman’s actions in the moments after the helicopter landed were the result of him disobeying Slabinski’s order to immediately find cover and contact the gunship overhead, so it could fire in support of the team. “Basically, they were on the cusp of getting in…and he just took off running, guns blazing, totally off book, off script, glory seeking, whatever,” says the Navy officer familiar with the controversy. “That was the way it was conveyed to me.”
A JSOC memo obtained by Newsweek regarding Chapman’s potential upgrade includes a note appended by a Team 6 representative on September 21, 2016, that articulates this line of argument. “The actions were inconsistent with the orders given TSgt Chapman,” reads the note. “[H]e neglected his primary responsibility of establishing comms with air support, which, had he consolidated initially with the team and established comms, would have enabled positive identification of the team, their location and allowed for CAS [close air support]fires which could have saved Chapman and prevented the wounding of the other two team members.”
This new tack incensed Chapman’s supporters, who saw it as a desperate attempt to derail his award. “That became their position when nothing else was working,” says the former combat controller. “From the Air Force side of the equation, our disappointment at that point is absolute. Because it’s like, You guys, in order to protect your image, will sully the legacy of a man who you all agreed saved everyone’s life 15 years ago, but now to protect the [SEAL] brand you’ll throw him under the bus.”
The SEALs’ alleged attempt to change the narrative about Chapman’s initial actions also failed to persuade senior Pentagon officials who would ultimately decide whether to forward the recommendation to the White House. As one puts it, “There were some people who said, ‘Hey, he wasn’t supposed to go to the left; he was supposed to go to the right,’ to which we all said, ‘The damn enemy was to the left. He went towards the sound of the guns, so shut up!’”
A Mako 30 SEAL says that he does not recall anyone accusing Chapman of failing to obey orders and that as far as he knew, the SEALs didn’t have any issues with recognizing him for his heroism “up until the point Chapman was shot.” But, he adds, the airman’s alleged actions after that point were “what the Air Force was using to get him the upgrade.” That rankled Chapman’s Mako 30 teammates, who remain unconvinced by the Air Force’s argument that their colleague survived after they retreated. “The way they pieced it together,” the Mako 30 SEAL says, “it didn’t add up.”
Defense Secretary Mattis directed his deputy, retired Marine Colonel Bob Work, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford to evaluate the merits of both nominations. They convened a series of contentious high-level meetings in the Pentagon.
The unique nature of the Chapman case was the principal factor that once again delayed the process, according to a former defense official familiar with the discussions. Senior Pentagon officials were concerned that there were no eyewitness accounts of Chapman’s heroism.
One constant in the discussions: the institutional allegiances of the different special operations “tribes” and the direct connections of several key leaders to the Takur Ghar fight. In addition to Thomas and Szymanski, Army General Joe Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, also had a personal stake in the mountaintop struggle. At the time of the battle, he commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment, which meant he was Thomas’s boss. The Rangers who died were his men as well. The Team 6 commander from 2015 to 2017 had also worked for Szymanski at Bagram during Anaconda. As a result, says a former defense official, “there were no completely objective observers in this entire thing.”
‘A Head on a Platter’
As the two packages worked their way through the system, some military officials expressed concern about several questionable episodes in Slabinski’s past. Federal law states that a service member cannot receive the Medal of Honor “if his service after he distinguished himself has not been honorable.”
Slabinski had been associated with at least three controversial incidents since Takur Ghar, according to a January 2017 article in The Intercept about alleged Team 6 transgressions. The article included an audio file of a segment of an interview Slabinski conducted with author Malcolm MacPherson for his book Roberts Ridge, which tells the Takur Ghar story from Slabinski’s perspective. In the interview, Slabinski recounts a mission in 2002, not long after the Takur Ghar fight, and describes shooting at the corpse of an enemy fighter he knew was dead, just to watch the body jerk as the bullets hit it. A former special operations officer who has heard Slabinski discuss the same incident said it sounded to him as if it could be construed as “a war crime.”
The other two episodes occurred during a 2007-2008 deployment to Afghanistan. In one, Slabinski told his men before a mission that he wanted “a head on a platter,” according to The Intercept. Slabinski and others later said he was speaking metaphorically, but one of his men appeared to try to saw off a dead militant’s head. (Slabinski later told The New York Times he ordered the operator to stop what he was doing.) The Naval Criminal Investigative Service looked into it, but closed the case after finding no evidence the SEALs had broken the laws of armed conflict.
Shortly thereafter, Slabinski’s squadron was involved in another contentious incident when local elders accused the SEALs of killing every man they saw during a mission. A former senior Team 6 member told The New York Times that Slabinski, the squadron’s senior enlisted man, had directed the operators to kill every adult male they encountered on the raid. Slabinski denied giving any such guidance, and a JSOC investigation found no wrongdoing. “The allegations in the Intercept article were looked into by Naval Special Warfare Command when that article was published,” a Navy official tells Newsweek. “No allegations of misconduct were ever found to be credible.”
Although the Intercept article covered all three episodes, only the 2002 incident was raised to the attention of the Pentagon officials considering whether to forward Slabinski’s Medal of Honor recommendation to the White House. As one puts it, “We were aware of the audio file where Slab admitted to shooting a corpse. However, we were told he had not been subject to any disciplinary action. After careful consideration, it was decided that it was not something that should prevent Slabinski receiving the nation’s highest award for valor.” Nonetheless, the officials flagged the matter when they sent the recommendation forward. “We wanted to make sure that those who would make the final decision were aware of the incident,” a former defense official says.
However, a former senior Team 6 officer says, a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Takur Ghar fight would force Slabinski to repeatedly relive an extraordinarily traumatic episode he has tried to put behind him. In 2016, Slabinski told The New York Times that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and still saw “visions” of figures moving in slow motion on Takur Ghar. “I don’t think he really wanted this thing,” says the former senior Team 6 officer. Yet Slabinski has reluctantly accepted that it’s his “duty” to accept the award if the president signs off on it, he adds. “He’s going to be the quiet professional and represent it the best he can.”
‘The Heroism of Both Men’
By July, Dunford and Work recommended that the awards for both Slabinski and Chapman be upgraded to Medals of Honor. Mattis forwarded both packages to the White House in the fall. If Trump approves the awards, it will mark only the second time in the post-9/11 era that two Medals of Honor have been awarded for actions during the same battle, says awards expert Sterner, an Army veteran with two combat tours in Vietnam.
Despite the efforts of the SEALs and U.S. Special Operations Command, when Chapman’s award citation went to the White House, it included a reference to his lonely fight after the Mako 30 survivors had retreated. Work ultimately reinserted that language, James says. However, another source tells Newsweek that much of the detail pertaining to Chapman’s actions during that period will be classified, “because of the technical intelligence that was involved.”
This news, already known to some insiders, fed perceptions that the Pentagon was trying to protect the SEALs’ reputation. “It’s part of accommodating SEAL Team 6,” says the former combat controller. “It allows them to sort of obfuscate things.”
Chapman’s sister, Lori Longfritz, says her priority is seeing her brother recognized for his heroism, not the politics that has surrounded the effort to upgrade his award. “I just want John to get what he deserved to be awarded back in January of ’03,” she tells Newsweek. “What happens outside of that, I don’t care.”
Spokesmen for U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command were mum about whether their bosses had concurred with the upgrades for Chapman and Slabinski. However, a defense official says U.S. Special Operations Command did not concur with the Slabinski upgrade but did for Chapman’s, only on the basis of his actions before the SEALs withdrew.
There was a late effort to persuade Mattis not to approve Slabinski’s upgrade, according to a senior Pentagon official. “There is some unease about the Navy’s push to upgrade, and some people have expressed doubt…as to whether it’s truly worthy of a Medal of Honor,” the official says. “A couple of people have tried to slow it down, but the train seems to have left the station, unless the White House decides otherwise.”
Historically, once a Medal of Honor package reaches the White House, it is virtually assured of approval, says Sterner. However, the Trump administration has yet to make an announcement regarding either package. “[Defense Department] policy is not to comment on the status of pending Medal of Honor nominations until the award is announced by the White House or the medal is awarded by the president,” says Eastburn, the Pentagon spokesman.
“The reputational aspect of all this” may be why the White House is taking so long to approve the awards, says a former defense official. In other words, the Trump administration may be preparing for blowback. “When you’re asking the president to award the Medal of Honor, you want to make sure that he understands ‘Look, this will be viewed as controversial by some people and may play out in the press in ways that detract from the heroism of both men,’” the former official says.
Any debate over the validity of the awards would be unfair to the men being recognized, says Sterner. “There should be no controversy here,” he says. “Awarding both of these men the Medal of Honor does nothing to take away from the prestige of the award and everything to highlight the true heroism of two very, very dedicated servicemen.”
Senior Pentagon officials ultimately reached the same conclusion. “I’m sorry it took so long and there was such a contentious debate, but I’m satisfied in the end the right decision was made,” says the former defense official. “Both Slab and Chappy were courageous warriors who rated a Medal of Honor.”
This by no means guarantees unanimous opinion among officials who have watched the process play out over the past two years. “The soil is pretty freaking soggy for us to really stand firm on any of these,” says the Navy officer familiar with the controversy. Meanwhile, he adds, the Pentagon is trying to silence the naysayers. Mattis’s office has “made it pretty clear that ‘if and when this thing moves, we don’t want to hear any dissenting voices or side-chatter.’”
That may be a vain hope. “I know how bad this story can be,” the officer says of the potential fallout. Which makes him wonder: “Why are we even walking into this buzz saw?”