When President Donald Trump posthumously bestowed Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House Aug. 22, it marked, in the words of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein “the beginning of a year-long celebration of this incredible warrior who inspires us all to be better airmen.”
The following day, in a ceremony to mark Chapman’s induction into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, Air Force leaders delivered moving tributes to the man who so impressed everyone he touched during his too-short, but well-lived life.
The Aug. 23 remarks by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson provide an unparalleled view into the heart and soul of the man who has now passed into Air Force legend.
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright
The ancient Greeks believed that character was formed in part by fate and in part by parental training. They believed that character was exemplified not only by acts of bravery in battle but in the habits of daily conduct.
I believe that when the ancient Greeks formed their definition of character, they could only have had one man in mind – Tech. Sgt. John Chapman. We’re here today because of John’s actions in battle on March 4, 2002, but his character was formed at his core some 36 years earlier.
John’s childhood friends described him as someone “so worth being remembered because he was such a good person all around.” They said they never saw him fail — at anything; that he was humble. One friend said John had every right to be proud of what he’d accomplished in life, but never bragged.
His friends say John was raised to be compassionate and considerate. He was the one who — from the time he was little — dedicated himself to helping others. When one of his kindergarten friends was being bullied, it was John who stepped in to intervene. And when his group of friends passed an acquaintance in the school halls and noticed she was upset, it was John who stopped to talk to her, consoling her as she shared the news of losing her father.
His late father, Gene, who was also an airman, and mother, Terry, brought him up to work hard and throw himself into whatever it was he did. John had two left feet on the soccer field, but he practiced so much he become a star. Because he never gave up. He was known to be competitive and aggressive, but was never one for a cheap shot. The humility his parents taught him from an early age was evidenced by how he approached soccer. He was known as the guy on the team who always got more satisfaction in setting up a play than he did in scoring a goal.
And he carried that humility with him into the Air Force. Retired Chief Master Sgt. Bruce Dixon, one of John’s teammates at the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, said, “the attention John is receiving now would have embarrassed him – because to him, it was never about him and it was always about his teammates.” Bruce said John was never one to brag about himself, to the point that he often surprised those around him.
Bruce and John were on the same team at Fort Bragg during a training event known as a Monster Mash – one of those “up at 0300 to find the objectives and make it to the rally point” events that left them cold and wet and exhausted. One of the last events of the Monster Mash was at the pool. Each member had to climb up the 10-meter platform to the high dive, jump into the water and get out. Each member took their turn … and then there was John. He climbed to the platform and walked out to the edge. But when he got there, he turned around – his back to the pool – and balanced on his tiptoes with his arms extended.
With everyone watching, he bounced once, twice and then a third time, executing a flawless two-and-a-half gainer, rotating toward the platform, somersaulting two and a half times and cleanly splitting the water. Until that moment, no one, not even those closest to him on his team, knew that John was once a competitive diver and an Olympic hopeful whose Connecticut state diving records still stand today. He’d never told them, because he wasn’t one to brag.
He’s been described as funny, quick-witted and smart. Those who knew him growing up and those who he grew up with in the Air Force said he was dedicated. He was full of life and enthusiasm. And above all, every person who knew him knew he was a devoted, compassionate father who cared most about his wife, Valerie, and daughters, Madison and Brianna.
Those who knew John knew his greatest source of happiness came from spending time with family and that being a husband and a father was, to him, his ultimate success. But those who knew him also knew of his full measure of devotion to helping others. If given the chance, John would do anything in his power to help someone in need.
Which is why it would surprise no one that he would be only the fourth enlisted airmen since the United States Air Force became an independent service to be awarded the Medal of Honor. And it would not come as a surprise to anyone that this honor was bestowed upon a technical sergeant.
Because John died exactly in the same way he lived – doing anything in his power to help others in need.
The morning of his death, 17 hours after he’d run off the aircraft and into battle, John found himself alone and 11,000 feet up on an Afghan mountain. Just as the sun was coming up, he must have heard the sounds of incoming helicopters. It was the quick reaction force, or QRF and they were coming back for him. But his character wouldn’t allow him to take cover and await rescue. Because John knew something those in the air didn’t – they were in need and he was going to do everything in his power to protect them.
The QRF helicopter flared to land on its second pass, taking heavy enemy fire. It was then that John left his bunker one last time, engaging an enemy team wielding rocket-propelled grenade launchers who were preparing to assault the incoming rescue forces. He was struck by enemy machine gun fire and his final, desperate attempt to defeat the enemy resulted in his death. He inflicted numerous enemy causalities and the QRF was able to secure the mountain top. Ultimately, John sacrificed himself to save his teammates.
John’s character was exemplified in the habits of his daily conduct, but his acts of bravery in battle on that cold March morning in 2002 will forever speak to who John was as a man, a teammate, an operator and an airman.
In all, America lost seven great men that day atop the mountain of Takur Ghar. And remaining true to John’s character, he would want us to remember them all.
♦ Petty Officer 1st Class Neil “Fifi” Roberts
♦ Army Sgts. Bradly S. Crose and Phillip “Spytech” Svitak
♦ Army Cpl. Matthew A. Commons
♦ Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, and
♦ Army Spc. Marc A. Anderson
For among these men, uncommon valor was their common virtue.
Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein
In a few moments, we will hear the words of the citation that describe the actions on Takur Ghar where Tech. Sgt. Chapman fought to his death to protect his teammates.
It is a story that will be told and retold for generations, as the John Chapman story joins the ranks of other legends like John Levitow … and Bud Day … and Leo Thorseness.
This week begins a year-long celebration of this incredible warrior who inspires us all to be better airmen.
So, I want to spend a few moments talking about John Chapman the man … the father of Brianna and Madison … the husband of Valerie … the son of his beloved mother, Terry … and the brother of Tammy, Lori and Kevin … the team guy known as a quiet jokester … and the fearless warrior.
While I never met John, I feel like I know him because his picture hangs in my office as it has for the past two years courtesy of my former exec, Brig. Gen. Wolfe Davidson, who is here today. …
At difficult times and when faced with hard decisions, I can look at that picture and find strength in his strength, and I’m reminded that leading and representing airmen like John Chapman remains the honor of a lifetime.
Wolfe shared the story of how John came to being deployed to Afghanistan in January of 2002.
As one of the more experienced combat controllers, Tech. Sgt. Chapman was placed on alert after the 9-11 attacks with the Navy SEAL team led by then-Senior Chief [Britt] “Slab” Slabinski, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient from the same mission.
The SEAL team was scheduled to go forward to Afghanistan, but John was not in the plan to accompany them.
So, it was on Christmas Day 2001 that Brig. Gen. Davidson was in the office and John Chapman walked in. He told Wolfe, “Sir, this is the best Navy SEAL team they have, and they’re about to head out. Because they’ll get the hardest missions, they need the most experienced combat controller with them.” He told his boss with quiet but forceful determination, “I need to go with them.”
As Wolfe shared, “there was a look in his eyes that portrayed that he needed to be there for a higher purpose, and his logic was sound. By the end of the conversation he was on the deployment.”
Here I am, Lord. Send me.
On the mission prior to Takur Ghar, John and the team were working out of a safehouse in Afghanistan where there was a family in the house and only one room with a heater, in February, so it was cold.
As the family was being shuffled into a room without heat, John stopped the movement and demanded that the young girl, who happened to be the same age as his daughters at the time, and her family be allowed to stay in the heated room.
While the local Afghan forces initially resisted, John was adamant and wrapped his arms around the little girl until they relented.
This basic humanity established a level of rapport with this family that made the entire team feel safe. You can see the warmth of this relationship in the photo.
Days later, he was fighting with vengeance up a 28-degree slope in knee-high snow in close quarters against a determined enemy.
Perhaps this is what distinguishes an American warrior from others. We fight with a purpose and we go to war with our values. Not only was John Chapman a fearless warrior, he was an incredibly good man.
Such is the nature of those who receive our nation’s highest honor. They inspire us to become better men and women … to work every day to live up to their example.
I hope as the story of John Chapman is told over the years, we never lose touch with the story of John Chapman the man, the husband of Valerie … the father of Brianna and Madison … the son of Terry … and the brother of Tammy, Lori and Kevin.
While this picture will eventually go back to Brig. Gen. Davidson where it belongs … Wolfe, I would be honored if I could borrow it for a couple more years.
John and I have some more work to do in that office, and I can’t imagine a day without him watching over me.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson
Thank all of you for being here today. A particular thank you to Harvey Barnum, Medal of Honor recipient; Cory Etchberger, the father of Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, who was a Medal of Honor recipient. And, of course, to John’s family, especially his mom, Terry; his widow, Val; and his daughters, Brianna and Madison. It’s been wonderful to spend some time with all of you over the last few days.
We don’t focus on it very much, but the first verse of our national anthem is a series of questions.
Can you see our flag, as the dawn is breaking?
It was 1814 and Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, was aboard the flagship of the British fleet in Baltimore Harbor as the British relentlessly pummeled Fort McHenry. It was a tough time in our history. Washington, D.C., the capital of our young republic, had been sacked by the British a few weeks before. The Capitol had been set aflame and the White House was evacuated.
That first verse ends with a question for us. A challenge.
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Would our nation endure? Would we be protected by the brave? Would we be able to produce the men and women it takes, who swallow fear, who summon bravery, and act to protect freedom and to protect each other?
Today we honor John Chapman, who, by his actions, answered the question in our national anthem for his generation. He will forever be in our Hall of Heroes as one of America’s bravest.
When [Navy SEAL] Neil Roberts was knocked off the back of his helicopter on that day on March 4, 2002, John knew his only acceptable option was to go back for Neil.
He knew they were flying into a hornet’s nest. And he did it anyway.
When the helicopter landed, John immediately moved toward the enemy, uphill, through knee-deep snow, under heavy fire.
He knew what he was facing. And he did it anyway.
He charged an enemy bunker, cleared it, exposed himself to attack going after another bunker, was hit and knocked unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he knew he had to fight on.
He certainly knew the odds. And he did it anyway.
The dawn’s early light was breaking over Takur Ghar. When the helicopter sent to rescue the team was about to be attacked by a fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade, John knew he had to try to stop him.
He was alone, outgunned. And he did it anyway.
We could see the rockets’ red glare, not from a ship in the harbor, but from the eyes of a predator drone arching overhead.
To be sure, John’s bravery that day wasn’t some fluke. He had prepared himself for that day. Many of you in this room helped to train him for that day.
One of John’s instructors recalled Sgt. Chapman’s time at Combat Control School, one of the more grueling of Air Force training programs. In the Special Tactics Training pipeline, about 85 percent wash out. And his instructor recalls a smirk on Sgt. Chapman’s face during training, as if the training was too easy for him. And, his instructor says, it was too easy for John. John Chapman never talked about how good he was at what he did. He didn’t have to.
We don’t often sing them, but there are three more verses in our national anthem. In the final one, Francis Scott Key answers his own question with a prayer that praises the “Power that hath made and preserves us a nation.”
“The star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
For his generation of Americans, John Chapman was the answer to that lingering question. Our nation endures, and continues to be the land of the free, because of brave men. Because of John Chapman.